Last month The Shakespeare Institute continued an admirable recent tradition of marathon play readings. Led by Martin Wiggins, The Institute hosted a succession of readings of the complete works of Thomas Dekker and previous years included readings of James Shirley (2015), Thomas Heywood (2014), and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (2013). Happily, there will be another marathon next year. In a departure from the authorial canon approach, the 2017 marathon focuses on plays written in the decade before Shakespeare. If you’re in Stratford, you can get involved in these readings; having participated in the past I can confirm it is good fun. For those able to make multiple readings it’s also an invaluable opportunity to familiarize yourself with the works of an author, or a particular time period. But even those who cannot attend can still feel involved by following along on Twitter. A number of readers enthusiastically livetweeted the Dekker event and their tweets have been helpfully archived.
What story do these livetweets tell? Well, taken together, they offer a valuable alternative lens through which to view Renaissance drama. Shakespeare quotes (and misquotes) are ten a penny, in this year especially – has anyone else noted how many football commentators are trying to cram in Shakespeare references during Euro 2016? – but you don’t normally get to hear people quoting Dekker. How interesting, then, to see the kind of quotes pulled out for livetweeting. Many of these quotes centre on insults. For example, in The Patient Man and the Honest Whore we see tweets about how tobacco ‘makes your breath stink like the piss of a fox’ as well as references to ‘a withered artichoke-faced rascal’ and a ‘soused gurnet’. But we also get records of fantastically odd phrases like the closing couplet to The Noble Spanish Soldier: ‘Other distractions, time must reconcile./The state is poisoned like a crocodile’.
Perhaps most importantly, the livetweets give coverage to plays and pageants that are rarely read, let alone quoted publicly on Twitter. Pleasingly, Sir Thomas More, which has received considerable attention, but usually for its textual idiosyncrasies or authorial controversies, is treated first and foremost as a play. I think it’s worth emphasizing the usefulness of the work the Dekker Marathon and its livetweeters do in this regard. Although lots of people enjoy reading and watching not-Shakespearean Renaissance plays it’s also true that these plays get disparaged frequently and that our critical efforts to redress the balance often lead to studies that inadvertently obscure the vitality and interest of the drama itself.
Livetweets are sometimes compared to commonplacing in books in that snippets of text are taken from one context to another, whether to publicize a text (as may be the case in livetweeting) or to serve as a memory aid (as may be the case in commonplacing). Sixteenth and seventeenth-century readers often copied sections from poems, letters, and, indeed, plays, in commonplace books: they might record a passage from a play they thought especially apposite. And just as the Dekker tweets give us access to a different perspective on Renaissance theatre so too do commonplace books and miscellanies, as an exciting new resource helps to prove. DEx: A Database of Dramatic Extracts is an online, searchable database of extracts from seventeenth-century manuscripts. Even a cursory glance at it demonstrates how differently we might view the reception history of Renaissance plays.
For example, in one manuscript (Folger MS V.a.87) an unknown compiler notes down 524 quotes from ten different plays. Some of those references are to Shakespeare’s plays – The Merchant of Venice (38) and Pericles (36) – but the most frequently quoted plays are ones that are now no longer very often read, let alone quoted. Philip Massinger’s The Maid of Honour is quoted 116 times, John Ford’s The Fancies, Chaste and Noble is quoted 94 times and the J.W.’s The Valiant Scot is quoted 52 times. These examples, together with the Dekker tweets, help to broaden our sense of the reception history of Renaissance drama. Even apparently obscure plays like The Valiant Scot have had some sort of reception history: perhaps we should attend more to the afterlives (or should that be the continued lives?) of these supposedly dead plays.