February 8th

Today, Shakespeare’s reputation depends on the many contingent materials and self-interested decisions of early modern printers and publishers whose early efforts to commit Shakespeare’s language to print allows for us to remember, read, and engage with his vast corpus of works. The initial acts of publishing, printing, and selling those plays, however, were financially motivated decisions that are themselves indicative of something else—that Shakespeare could sell, and he could sell because, then as now, he had a reputation as a dramatist.

That reputation was surely unstable, growing, in all likelihood, over the course of his career, and solidified in remarkable ways by the printing of his works. But even before a play of Shakespeare’s was first printed, in 1594, “Shakespeare” was enough of a name to provoke an equal mix of envy and intimidation in the prose writer and rival dramatist Robert Greene: “There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.”

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