Research Musings: Cultural Capital

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past couple of days about Middleton and Rowley’s relationship to Shakespeare. I am now convinced that it is literally impossible to research a play by any early modern playwright besides Shakespeare without also researching Shakespeare. This is frustrating, especially because I deliberately chose not to propose a Shakespeare topic for my PhD.

Take, for example, a book I skimmed through today: Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe by Pauline Kiernan. It reads like a sort of retrospective look at the new Globe’s first seasons, especially in the final section, which is comprised of statements from actors and directors who worked on the first shows to be produced there. The opening season in 1997 was made up of four plays: Henry V, The Winter’s Tale, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, and The Maid’s Tragedy. That’s right folks: two by Shakespeare, one by Middleton, and one by Beaumont and Fletcher. Let’s take a moment to digest that information: the opening season at Shakespeare’s Globe was half Shakespeare and half Shakespeare’s contemporaries. One would never know this, however, from reading the aptly-titled Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe. 

In the aforementioned final section of the book, there are something like twenty or thirty interviews. By my count, only six or seven mention A Chaste Maid in Cheapside at all, despite the fact that most of the interviewees acted in that play. Of those six or seven, only two actually say something significant about the play or the production. I think it’s telling that the director of Chaste Maid notes in his statement that ‘Richard III would be terrific here’.

I’ve been advised that it is, indeed, academic suicide to not address the issue of Shakespeare’s ‘cultural capital’ in my dissertation, at least in the introduction. I know that I have to do it, but I hate that I have to do it. My supervisor, Kate, shared an anecdote with me from her university years when I expressed my frustration that I couldn’t find anything on Middleton that didn’t compare him to Shakespeare: she said that, in a gender studies lecture, her tutor explained how to identify a discriminatory statement. She claimed that if you could reverse a statement without it sounding ridiculous then it was not discriminatory; if not, then the original statement was probably objectively ridiculous, despite being normalised by society. So let’s consider the statement–which crops up in a lot of Middleton biographies and critical studies–that Middleton, in his best work, “approaches” or “comes near to” the genius of Shakespeare.

Turned around, that reads:

Shakespeare, in his best work, approaches the genius of Middleton


Shakespeare, at his best, comes near to the genius of Middleton.

No sane scholar would ever use that inverted version. Why? Because Shakespeare has been created as a cultural pillar, a benchmark by which all other playwrights are measured. It’s next to sacrilege to even suggest that Shakespeare would have to measured against the “genius” of another playwright.

So what if, rather than attempting to turn the tables, I try to leave Shakespeare out of the equation–at least the version of Shakespeare that has become a ubiquitous cultural icon. It may not be possible, for example, to leave out a discussion of the allusions in The Changeling to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But what are the theoretical implications of treating Shakespeare like everyone else? What, if any, are the potential problems of treating him as just another playwright?


1 Comment

  1. As an undergraduate in the late 1970s I did a course in Elizabethan & Jacobean Drama excluding Shakespeare! Shakespeare was a separate course. You could do a course in the two combined if you were a non-specialist.
    Just a thought – what about taking a theme like satirical writing in drama? Or is that too broad? You could take in a number of contemporary writers that way.

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