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"Reading Shakespeare’s Early Modern Readers (1590-1720)" (Mellon, 2010–2011)
Shakespeare’s early modern readers—those who not only bought, borrowed and circulated, but also marked and appropriated the text of his first editions—were arguably as essential to the growing status of Shakespeare’s works as those who acted, directed or went to see his plays (and indeed sometimes they were the same people). This project will focus in particular on actual readers (or “empirical” readers) and try to reconstruct their reading experience, their practices and their relation to Shakespeare’s works. It will examine the ways in which readers transformed their books and how their sense of self and their relation to the work was altered not only by the book’s physical, material space (its size, layout, etc.), but also by its symbolic value.
I will study the marginalia and other marks of use left by readers in early editions of Shakespeare. I also intend to focus on a number of significant manuscript miscellanies and commonplace books and compare them to those available on the print market, in order to explore the differences between the private practices of individuals and the techniques of established scholars, editors or academics. The variety of practices described will no doubt redefine our sometimes austere or overly intellectualized image of early modern commonplacing. More broadly, the project should help us understand how some of our most familiar reading practices were born out of the interaction between those thousands of early modern readers and the printed text of such widely read authors as Shakespeare.