Shakespeare’s first success in print came in the form of the poem Venus and Adonis, first printed in 1593 and going through several subsequent editions in a relatively short span of time: a second edition appeared in 1594, a third in 1595, and a total of ten by 1617, the year following Shakespeare’s death. While the more serious companion piece to the poem, The Rape of Lucrece, was less popular than Venus and Adonis, the “graver work,” as Shakespeare called it, still enjoyed several re-printings during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Such popularity was remarkable for any printed text, much less a poem such as Shakespeare’s; a curious fact of publication history, though, is that its records only indicate one kind of popularity enjoyed by the poem in question. Why did people purchase a copy of a poem like The Rape of Lucrece? Did they buy it as the early modern equivalent of a coffee table book—as a piece of furniture to be seen, advertised, admired by one’s guests rather than privately and concertedly engaged with?
These questions are prompted but less easily answered by the publication records of Shakespeare’s two early poems, but the Dowse manuscript offers another way to answer them. Owned by a man named Thomas Dowse, it represents what is likely the earliest extant document quoting a piece of Shakespeare’s works—in this case, The Rape of Lucrece. The manuscript is a copy of the fifteenth-century writer Peter Idle’s Instructions to His Son; Dowse, it seems, used the manuscript to double as a notebook in which to practice writing his name–“Thomas Dowse” is still repeatedly and carefully inscribed across the pages–and to copy out quotations of established writers, Shakespeare among them.
Dowse’s entry reads: “Huge rocks, high winds, strong pirates, shelves and sands, the Merchant fears ere rich at home he lands.” The quotation falls in line with the common-placing tradition popular at the time—reading works and mining them for eloquent, pithy, or moralizing quotations to be re-used on some later occasion, regardless of context—and suggests at least one way Shakespeare’s contemporary readers engaged with his writing.