Who decides what’s in a canon? Jeremy Lopez on English literary history

This year marks Jeremy Lopez’s first in succeeding Gail Kern Paster as editor of Shakespeare Quarterly, the academic journal of Shakespeare studies published by the Folger. We revisit this profile of him by Amy Arden from the Fall 2013 issue of Folger Magazine.

Scholar Jeremy Lopez spent his fellowship year at the Folger investigating the beginnings of English literary history and how the choices made by eighteenth-century literary historians influenced literary tastes. Who decided which old texts of plays and poems and ballads were saved for posterity and which were buried in obscurity? And how does that color our understanding of Shakespeare?

Jeremy Lopez, Professor of English at the University of Toronto, is the new editor of Shakespeare Quarterly

Shakespeare is a household name in almost every household one might think of. But when most people are asked to name Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the answer might well be a shrug or even a look of incomprehension, despite the fact that Shakespeare was only one playwright among many in a bustling and highly competitive theatrical world. For better or for worse, scholars and anthologizers, and by extension, readers and theatergoers have drawn two circles when it comes to early English drama. One belongs to Shakespeare. One belongs to everybody else.

Jeremy Lopez, associate professor of English at the University of Toronto, is questioning the history of this dichotomy drawn between Shakespeare and his contemporary playwrights in an upcoming book, Constructing the Canon of Early Modern Drama, due out from Cambridge in early 2014. The goal: to rethink the contours of English drama apart from Shakespeare.

Lopez’s 2014 book, “Constructing the Canon of Early Modern Drama”

“Everything is compared to Shakespeare, and I don’t think there is any way around that. It’s a great thing, to have a common currency for criticism. You have to go through Shakespeare to get to non-Shakespeare,” Lopez explains.

By moving outside a Shakespeare-based repertoire, Lopez is taking a look at which plays were considered better than others, what kind of criteria were used in making those judgments, and especially how the works selected to represent the early modern era might change.

“Reconsidering what texts we select might allow greater harmony between the way texts appear in a canon and the criticism of the texts themselves,” Lopez explains.

The urge to collect surviving copies of early play texts and compare them to each other is hardly a new phenomenon. Although he himself wrote plays and poetry, the legacy of London bookseller and publisher Robert Dodsley (1703–1764) rests largely on his work as the editor of Select Collection of Old Plays, published in 12 volumes in 1744. The Select Collection is recognized as the first attempt to anthologize early modern plays and, in effect, write the beginnings of English literary history. Because of its large scope—it contains roughly 60 works by dozens of playwrights, it has formed the foundation for Lopez’s work.

“Dodsley’s Select Collection was the first modern anthology of renaissance drama. It basically creates the historical template that all anthologies since have followed—tracing an evolution from Tudor drama to the drama of Shakespeare’s immediate contemporaries, to the  plays that preceded and followed the Civil War,” Lopez explains. “But, if you go beyond the temporal organization, many of the plays are essentially the same type of play, all largely similar to Restoration comedies. It gives you a very particular sense of the period’s aesthetic. Dodsley’s aesthetic is something that each new generation of editors and scholars has modified or reacted against.”

At the Folger, where he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, Lopez examined Dodsley’s manuscript notebook, in which he sketches out the introduction for his Select Collection and begins making a list of plays to be included.

“This allowed me to see, essentially first-hand, some of his initial decisions for selection and exclusion,” Lopez says. For example, Dodsley had originally listed Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, but later, for unknown reasons, crossed it out and wrote “Edward II” instead.

Robert Dodsley manuscript
Robert Dodsley. Hints of designs for the Theatrum Anglicanum [manuscript], ca. 1740. Folger Shakespeare Library. D.a.73
Dodsley’s Select Collection went on to be published in several subsequent editions. John Payne Collier, a noted Shakespeare critic and infamous Shakespeare forger, wrote of plans to expand the Select Collection well beyond its original scope in his annotated copy of an 1825 edition of Dodsley, as well as in his Old Man’s Diary, both of which are in the Folger collection. Although Collier did produce a new edition of Dodsley’s works, due to problems with his publisher it did not reflect Collier’s grandiose vision and contained only a handful of new plays.

A select collection of old plays
Printed for Robert Dodsley. A select collection of old plays, 1744. Folger Shakespeare Library. PR1241.D7 Cage v. 1

While the plays in Dodsley’s anthology reflected his personal taste rather than a critical attempt to choose representative works, the volumes of the Select Collection of Old Plays set a de facto canon.  And as was common with collections of plays during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these anthologies did not include Shakespeare. Shakespeare, thanks to the work of actor David Garrick and other promoters, ranked in a category of his own, and his works were published separately.

Lopez argues that the works in anthologies thus not only represent a historic period, but an aesthetic ideal. And for many editors, the aesthetic ideal derived from an interpretation of Shakespeare’s works that set those plays as a standard.

“The question of aesthetics is a messy one to work your way through. My general idea has been that any representation of the history of the period is also a representation of the aesthetic idea of the period, and what the aesthetic idea is will vary from editor to editor,” he notes.

In addition to how editors such as Dodsley and Collier arranged and selected plays, Lopez also studied readers’ interpretations. Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope read widely from early nineteenth century anthologies, and his annotations offer an idea of historical reading practices surrounding early plays. Lopez notes that when reading C. W. Dilke’s six-volume 1816 anthology, Old Plays, Trollope read seemingly at random and over the span of many years. But when he read Charles Baldwyn’s two-volume 1825 anthology, The Old English Drama, which is not arranged in any chronological or authorial order, Trollope read the plays in precise order and in the course of just a couple of weeks

Lopez postulates that one reason why many early modern plays have been omitted from anthologies is their tendency to have a bifurcated structure. Disparate plots proved vexing for early editors, who tended to view them as a critical shortcoming, or as an obstacle in placing the play within a known category of drama.

“There are a lot of early plays that have double plots. For centuries, the two plots in Ben Jonson’s Volpone were seen as totally disparate. Eventually, in the 1950s, an article was written that said the Sir Politick Would-Be plot had connections to the main plot. I’m interested that it took 250 years for someone to say that!” Lopez says.

Plays that may be hard to read—or watch—could find a home in Lopez’s alternative canon, where the goal is not to exhibit works that only conform to a particular aesthetic or sharply defined historical era, but to examine individual works and extend the scope of playwrights whose works are studied. In many of today’s anthologies, early modern plays span the period between Thomas Kyds’ The Spanish Tragedy to John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Inevitably, some authors get left out.

“One thing that I think is missing is from these collections is Thomas Heywood. He’s a very prolific writer, who starts working in the late 1590s and is still writing plays in the 1630s. The aesthetic of Heywood is one that criticism struggles to appreciate. He was seen as a hack, or writing sloppy episodic dramas,” Lopez explains.

Modern editions of Heywood are few and far between. Some of his plays, like The Rape of Lucrece, contain multiple plots that critics have historically found problematic. The quality of Heywood’s output is also wildly inconsistent.

“He’s capable of writing a play like A Woman Killed with Kindness, accepted as a masterpiece in the Shakespearean model, and then a play like The Four ‘Prentices of London, which no one has ever heard of. The valuable thing about him is his weird resistance to being canonized,” Lopez notes.

While viewing current anthologies as valuable tools, Lopez also wonders if they may instill a belief that the aesthetic qualities of a period’s plays were produced by historical circumstances, rather than reflective of them. Do readers walk away believing that a given historic period could only have produced a certain kind of play? Is art predetermined by history?

“Each play has so many exceptions to aesthetic rules that you have to treat them each differently.  In some ways, the individual parts are more important than the whole. That is the value of looking at these playwrights in the non-Shakespearean canon,” Lopez concludes.