Lukas Erne. Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. xii+288pp. ISBN 052182255.

Steve Roth

Roth, Steve. "Review of Lukas Erne, Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist". Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 9.1-9 <URL:>

  1. One of the greater ironies of Shakespeare scholarship over the last century is the ongoing effort by Shakespeare scholars--most of whom spend dozens of hours a week enjoining, cajoling, and browbeating their students into addressing Shakespeare's plays as literature--to deny that those plays are literature. Shakespeare, these scholars say, thought of his plays as disposable, populist ephemera, like Hollywood scripts; they were created for performance, and that's all. Views, interpretations, editions, or theoretical schools which posit a reader are, by this thinking, sadly and anachronistically missing the point.

  2. A comment on Hamlet by John Dover Wilson may serve as proxy for many others. He describes the play as "an elaborate work of dramatic art," and continues, …the only criticism relevant to such an art is one that follows these impressions in the order in which the dramatist released them, and then considers the total impression left behind upon the audience after the play is finished. (328) So any interpretation which assumes a thoughtful, literary reader is simply…irrelevant. Innumerable undergraduates will no doubt be dismayed (or vindicated) when they learn this.

  3. It is especially surprising, given the hegemony and orthodoxy of the "performance"- based position among the adept (countered by the occasional plaintive voice in the literary wilderness), that the position is grounded almost entirely on assertions from absence: there's no known evidence that Shakespeare was actively involved in the publication of his plays. But as Lukas Erne demonstrates in Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist, there is a large body of convincing evidence showing that Shakespeare was writing not just for players and playgoers, but for readers as well. Erne calls upon every relevant study and scholar of note over the last century (he does not duck the tough questions) to demonstrate that:
  4. Among many arguments (which were there time and space enough, I would detail here), I will mention here Erne's explication in his final chapter of the theatrical nature of the short quartos of Romeo, Hamlet, and Henry V. He shows the hand of a skilled theatrical abridger at work, surgically excising flowery and purple "literary" material, and reworking the remainder for the benefit of players and playgoers. To cite one example, he shows that all the scattered references to Hamlet's sea voyage (which no auditor could dream of piecing together while watching a play--only a careful reader could do so) are absent in Q1, with all the information conveniently condensed into the only added scene in the quarto, between Gertrude and Horatio. Appendix A, "The Plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in print, 1584–1623,"is an intelligently designed, information-packed table, sufficient reason in its own right for having this volume to hand. Other tables throughout the volume are equally useful.

  5. Erne's argument is not without chinks. One significant omission, for instance--which he shares with others who have tackled the issue--is his failure to consider playing times in non-public venues: court, the Inns of Court, and private residences. Shakespeare's company presented his plays at court dozens of times during his lifetime--for twenty years they dominated the winter revels season--so this omission merits further research and discussion.

  6. Likewise, Erne does not provide a satisfying explanation for the sudden halt in publication of new Shakespeare plays around the time of James' accession. (Fifteen plays in the Stationer's Register in nine years, ending with Troilus in February 1603, followed by a five-year gap before Lear's registration, and only two more in Shakespeare's lifetime, in 1608.) Erne somewhat cavalierly (and uncharacteristically) casts aside the notion that this change had anything to do with the company's accession as The King's Men. Again, further investigation is in order. The book's index (as is sadly predictable with scholarly publications) is execrable. The single page-entry for James I, for instance (James is mentioned multiple times), doesn't point to the important though brief discussion of his accession. And many entries include more than a dozen undifferentiated page references.

  7. Even with these imperfections, Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist effectively puts paid to a complex of largely-assumed and reactive truisms that have increasingly dominated Shakespeare scholarship over the last century. It's difficult to come away from this book with any impression other than the perhaps obvious one: that Shakespeare was writing for both the page and the stage.

  8. Shakespeare's ability to write for apprentices and earls, for court and courtyard, for auditors and for readers, constitutes an important part of--and demonstration of--the skill that has transformed him into "Shakespeare." So perhaps this book's greatest importance is its promise of emancipation--freeing Shakespeare scholars to revel once again with their apter pupils in the genius and diversity that Shakespeare's "books" provide, without risk of suffering Prospero's exile.

  9. At the time of writing, the first 25 pages of the book, including the front matter and part of Chapter 1, are available in PDF format at

Work Cited

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© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).