Manuscript Precedents for Editorial Practices in John Benson’s Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-Speare. Gent.

Abstract

The influence of early printed poetical collections upon the oft-maligned second edition of Shakespeare’s collected sonnets (John Benson, 1640) has been convincingly argued in recent scholarship, but many structural elements found in Benson’s edition are also drawn from practices more common in early modern manuscript miscellanies, although these sources are often overlooked. This article argues for a wider recognition of manuscript compilation as a dominant influence upon John Benson’s edition of the poems, arguing that it is important to bear editorial precedents from seventeenth-century manuscripts in mind when evaluating textual approaches such as excluded poems, rearranged sequences, retitled poems, conflated texts, and omitted attributions. Given these parallels, the article contends that Benson and many Renaissance stationers should be considered not just publishers of Shakespeare’s works, but readers, editors, and purveyors of popular taste in the early modern period.

Several principles introduced in this article expanded in my recent monograph, First Readers of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1590-1790, which identifies numerous, disparate approaches that Shakespeare’s earliest private readers and more public connoisseurs used as they read, corrected, adapted, edited, and collected these poems. Like the two sonnet editions that preceded it, as well as several more that followed it, Benson’s Poems drew upon existing manuscript and print traditions and, in turn, influenced further manuscript collectors and textual editors. I would welcome opportunities to consult with colleagues or to speak to classes about the perceived disparities between print and manuscript (or public and private readership more generally) or to discuss poetical miscellanies from early modern England more broadly, particularly where these topics connect to larger debates about canonicity and the cultivation of popular culture.