- The Shadow of the Canon
The anthology is the canon’s shadow. I mean this in two ways. First, anthologies of “non-Shakespearean” early modern drama published in the last hundred years share a recognizable profile, an arc of evolutionary history from The Spanish Tragedy to Edward II to The Knight of the Burning Pestle to The Changeling to ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. This sharp outline is the shadow that runs before an authorial canon, the larger features of which are predictable (Lyly, Marlowe, Dekker, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, Middleton, Massinger, Ford) but which also change slightly as it moves from one literary-critical era to the next (Greene and Peele sometimes replace or supplement Lyly, Chapman sometimes follows Jonson, Brome and Shirley sometimes follow Ford). Second, whatever their local differences, early modern drama anthologies are consistent not only in their exclusion of plays by Shakespeare, but also in their selection of plays that most closely resemble Shakespeare’s—that is, in their predilection for an essentially “Shakespearean” dramatic style, one that foregrounds poetic richness, individuated characters, and a high degree of structural unity. Thus, the early modern dramatic anthology is also the shadow of the Shakespeare canon, cast off behind (and following the contours of) that canon as it is illuminated by the enduring lights of criticism, performance, pedagogy, and popular adulation.
I have recently argued that the time is ripe for a new anthology of early modern drama that deliberately seeks a shape other than that of the shadow canon.1 Since the current non-Shakespearean canon privileges poetic richness, individuated characters, and structural unity, a new anthology might privilege idiomatic prose or conventional poetry; typical, stylized, or particulated characters; and episodic structure. Certainly, the early modern dramatic corpus provides ample material for such an anthology. Since the current non-Shakespearean canon expresses an organically unified view of early modern dramatic history—where the drama is born with Lyly, Kyd, and Marlowe; grows up with Greene and Dekker; reaches maturity with Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, and Middleton; and declines into hopelessly optimistic [End Page 109] self-reflexivity with Massinger and Ford—a new anthology could present early modern dramatic forms as self-consuming artifacts.2 Such an anthology would eschew historical and evolutionary organization and instead emphasize the uniqueness, contingency, and great distances between playwrights’ often wildly innovative experiments. At the least, this anthology would suggest that the Shakespeare canon might cast a new and different shadow. At the most, it might become not simply a new shadow of the Shakespeare canon, but rather a separate and incommensurate figure—a new picture of early modern drama which, held up alongside the familiar picture of Shakespeare, would attract our attention for its differences more than its similarities.
Both goals are quixotic. As much as the Shakespeare canon is an imposing and weighty object (like a marble bust) whose shadow changes shape in different lights, it is also pervasive, diffuse, and untouchable (like a cloud), casting a shadow upon all that it passes over. Any noncanonical, or anticanonical, anthology inevitably reinscribes and reinforces the primacy and principles of the canon, most especially if it is used widely and becomes a canonizing force. It may be that the most effectively resistant way to encounter and define non-Shakespearean forms is to hunt them down in the comparatively scattered, often expensive, sometimes out-of-date and hard-to-read scholarly editions and collections that inhabit university libraries; in the numerous mini-anthologies, typically organized by subject or genre and comprising three or four plays, that have been published (often with student audiences in mind) in the last two decades;3 or in the nontraditional, hypertexted, open-access internet editions such as are (or will be) provided by Richard Brome Online, Queen’s Men Editions, Digital Renaissance Editions, and others.4 A teacher making thorough and judicious use of resources such as these could help students develop a [End Page 110] compendious and variegated view of early modern drama far superseding what is represented by any authorial or quasi-authorial canon.
But an anthology is not and need not be a canon. It also need...