John Payne Collier and the Shakespeare Society

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During the early years of the nineteenth century, the heightened interest in manuscripts and early printed editions precipitated the growth of publishing and printing societies which subsequently flourished throughout the 1800's. The object of these societies was generally to preserve through reproduction--and distribution to a select few--rare literary documents. One of the first societies to limit its scholarly scope to William Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but to open its resources to a far-flung literary community, was the Shakespeare Society founded in 1840 through the efforts of several eminent Victorian editors, most prominently John Payne Collier. Throughout its eleven years of active existence (1841-52), the Society produced forty-eight full-length scholarly studies and four volumes of Papers including the first accurate biography of Inigo Jones, the first printed edition of Sir Thomas More (three pages of which are thought by many to be in the hand of Shakespeare), the first publications of the full cycle of the Coventry mystery plays and the Chester Whitsun cycle, and the reprints of several Shakespearean source plays including Timon. Moreover, the Society represents a dramatic advance in conscientious investigative scholarship over the limited and exclusive social book clubs of the early part of the century and, for this reason alone, deserves attention and recognition. The aim of this study is to explore the origin of the Shakespeare Society and to document its contributions to the continuum of Shakespearean and Elizabethan scholarship. The first chapter charts the cultural currents from which the Society originated. The focus here is primarily on the unrestrained bibliomania of the period and on the steadily increasing desire of the English middle class to read, see, and understand the work of their national poet. Chapter two serves a dual purpose. It recalls previous Shakespeare associations in order to illustrate the advances in structure and scholarly objective demonstrated by the Shakespeare Society of 1840, and it examines the financial troubles which plagued the Society throughout its existence and contributed to its demise. Subsequent chapters recall and assess in the light of modern scholarship the individual dramatic and nondramatic achievements of the Society. They examine the Society's attempts to apply historical methods to the study of Shakespeare's non-dramatic literary milieu, and they record the disheartening evidence of systematic and premeditated fraud perpetrated by John Payne Collier on the scholarly community--often through the pages of the Society's publications. Chapters five and six highlight the Society's editorial achievements in dramatic literature: its ground-breaking editions of early English drama, its critical attention to the plays of Shakespeare's contemporaries, and its painstaking researches into the life and work of Shakespeare himself. Chapter seven reviews the four-volume sequence of The Shakespeare Society's Papers, which fostered cooperative literary scholarship through short contributions from amateur as well as professional scholars. The final segment represents an attempt to characterize, through the use of manuscript as well as published sources, the gentlemen of the Society's Councils. This study concludes on a bitter-sweet note since the questions of authenticity directed to the scholarship of John Payne Collier not only damaged his reputation, but also cast suspicion on all of his scholarly activities. On the other hand, Collier's industry in forming and maintaining the Shakespeare Society is unquestionably laudable. Through his efforts, the Society gathered together the most knowledgeable men of the period in the first cooperative attempt to encourage the systematic dissemination and exchange of literary information and to apply methods of historical research to Elizabethan literary scholarship.