Literary Daybook, May 2

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
May 2, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On May 2, 1147, Edgar and Catherine discover a body in their counting room.
-- "To Wear the White Cloak" (2000)
by Sharan Newman

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1594, Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" was entered in the Stationers' Register by printer Peter Short. The Stationers Company was the official organization of printers and publishers, given a monopoly in 1557 to practice "the art or mystery of printing." As early as 1538, Henry VIII had issued a proclamation against "naughty printed books," and the creation of the Stationers' Company was yet another attempt to regulate and censor the "many false, scandalous, seditious, and libelous" books that were emerging from the private presses.

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," says Samuel Johnson, but the Stationers had little legal responsibility to writers, and Shakespeare probably got nothing from Peter Short. The play Short registered may very well have been a pirated text -- an actor's promptbook, a "foul" copy from Shakespeare's drafts, a "fair" copy that somehow got into circulation, even a plagiarized patchwork made from lines cribbed during performances by an enterprising spectator. Shakespeare made his money primarily by writing for, acting in and being part owner of the Chamberlain's Men.


Not that the Bard was beyond borrowing. Much of the main plot for "The Taming of the Shrew" seems to have come from a 1550 popular ballad called "Here Begynneth a Merry Jest of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe, Lapped in Morrelles Skin, for her Good Behaviour." By the endeth, this contribution to the shrew-taming canon -- one researcher has compiled over 400 folk-tale versions from around the world -- was merry from only one perspective: The husband carries through with his threat to kill and skin his old horse, Morel, wrap his wife up in the salted hide and beat her with sticks until the salt in her wounds makes her pledge to reform. When the mother-in-law protests, he offers to tame her too. The father-in-law is noticeably quiet through this exchange.

Whatever the borrowing, and whatever Kate's knuckle-under at the end, there was no flogging of a dead horse in Shakespeare's "Shrew."

-- Steve King


To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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