Shakespeare and Paradigms of Early Modern Authorship

From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)

University of Florence
3 min readJun 7, 2022

Janet Clare, University of Hull

At the end of Poetaster,first performed in 1601, Ben Jonson appended a scene in which he appears on the stage in propria persona. The scene, as Jonson tells the reader in the published text of 1602, was meant as ‘an apology from the author’ and censored. ‘Apology’ here, of course, carries the meaning of defence, and in the following exchange between the Author, the sound critic, Nasutus, and the malicious one, Polyposus, the author defends Poetaster against those who have accused him of libel and stakes out his professional authority.

Jonson affirms, disingenuously or not, that his intentions were innocent but the play ‘had the fault to be called mine’ (Jonson 1995, 265). In a competitive and envious theatrical marketplace, proprietary authorship leads to over-determined reading of a play. Plays are interpreted and censured not according to their text, but according to their author. Polyposus alerts the Author to other slights on his authorship: he is known too much for his satirical railing and, moreover, he is slow at composition, scarcely bringing forth a play a year. In his defence, Jonson aligns himself with classical satirists, Aristophanes, Persius, and Juvenal, names, he asserts, glorified in the schools or, he scoffs, it is so pretended. As for his tardy production of plays, this occasions Jonson’s scorn of playwriting and the theatre. He composes so little for the theatre because he takes so little joy in writing for it. The only way this might change is if the ‘scribes’, the copyists and imitators, who produce plays might be ‘proscribed’ (272) from so doing. As on other occasions, as an author Jonson dissociates himself from hacks and other scribblers and uses the ‘apologetical dialogue’, as he describes it, to promote his own canonical sense of authorship.

I preface this essay with Jonson’s authorial representation because it impinges on questions about the status, the branding, the proprietary and moral rights of early modern authorship explored here. The resurgence of interest in the concept of authorship in the early modern period has in part been generated by Michel Foucault’s seminal essay, ‘What is an Author?’ (1969). There is no doubt that whether scholars have fundamentally adopted Foucault’s premise of what he terms the ‘author function’, qualified or questioned his historical view or fiercely contested his anti-humanist stance, his ideas have been influential in setting some of the parameters for the authorship debate in our period. Here I would like first to extricate ideas in Foucault’s essay which inform current thinking on authorship and then see how they might be used to stimulate our understanding of authorship in a period when many authors were not, like Jonson, vigorously identifying with and laying claim to their work. Foucault, of course, had little to say about Renaissance authorship. Col-lapsing the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he asserts that only then were literary discourses accepted when endowed with the author-function.

This historical narrative, Foucault’s epistemic shifts, have been questioned even by those working from an anti-essentialist premise of authorship, that is accepting the author function instead of admitting authorial individuality and intentionality into a reading of the text. Ample evidence has been cited to demonstrate that there never was ‘a privileged moment of individualization’ (Vickers 2002, 506–541). Briefly and simply, books have been accredited with authors since antiquity. Ovid was banished for his lascivious and scurrilous works. Authors’ names were given in the Middle Ages, and, as Stephen Dobranski (2008) has argued with particular reference to Philip Sidney, the Romantic notion of the author as hero can be traced back to an earlier period. Commerce played its part. With the growth of the book trade in the later sixteenth century writers became even more visible. Publishers used names to sell their books.


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