I’d like to give one example from my recent reading. In A.D. Wraight’s fascinating and thought-provoking book on Marlowe, The Story that the Sonnets Tell, there is a curious little chapter dedicated to the publication of Marlowe’s translation of Lucan in 1600 by Thomas Thorpe, later publisher of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Wraight is particularly interested in the dedication of this book to Edward Blount, sometime publisher of Marlowe and associate of Thomas Walsingham. She is convinced that this dedication is a cryptic message to Blount that “he has seen Marlowe alive and in person, and has received a manuscript of a ‘booke’ that he is going to bring to Blount”.2
The dedication to Blount is given “in the memory of that pure elemental wit, Chr. Marlow; whose ghoast or Genius is to be seen walke the Churchyard in (at the least) three or four sheets” – a reference that Wraight takes to indicate that Marlowe himself has been seen, perhaps wrapped in the “sheets” (robes) of a Moor to guard against being recognised. In a characteristic building of one supposition on another, Wraight suggests that Marlowe “was probably a very good actor” and “may well have been careful to adopt a disguise that would completely conceal him”. 3 Yet there is a simpler explanation for the remark: the “sheets” are the publications – the pages – in which his “genius” appears. If there is a hint of a cryptic message, it is likely to be in that parenthetical “at the least” which might hint that Thorpe was aware that more “sheets” in St Paul’s were haunted by Marlowe’s genius than was always (openly) acknowledged.
Wraight notes this “innocent reading” but dismisses it,4 mainly because she is so intrigued by the next part of the dedication, that appears tantalisingly conspiratorial. Thorpe instructs his friend to “be sure to have chang’d your lodgings” when he comes with his “booke”, and to make little marking of “your friends when you have found some way for them to come in at”. At the beginning of this little section Thorpe seems even more clear about what he is proposing: “you are to accommodate your selfe with some fewe instructions, concerning the property of a Patron, which you are not yet possest of”.
For Wraight there is only one possible meaning of property here, that is, an object of ownership. What this object is, is made clear for her by Thorpe’s next statement, referring to “when I bring you the booke”. “Evidently Thorpe has been entrusted with a manuscript which he is to give to Blount”,5 and equally evidently, she argues, it cannot be the Book of Lucan since that “contains the letter from Thorpe that refers to the ‘booke’ he is promising to bring to Blount – which cannot mean itself”.6
However, a recent LRB review by John Kerrigan has made clear that in Shakespeare’s time there was another meaning of the word property which was considerably more dominant.7 In modern usage, property most often denotes objects which are owned, but it can also be understood as an innate characteristic of a thing, its properties. Thus, the property of ice is to be cold, of metal is to be pliable. For the Elizabethans, this meaning was also commonplace with respect to persons/statuses. Where Shakespeare uses the term he “usually employs the word to designate the quality of something”.8 In Elizabethan English, then, the “property” of a “Patron” would almost certainly have meant the characteristic qualities of such a man.
Taking this as the meaning of the word makes the rest of Thorpe’s dedication completely clear as a satirical set of instructions for how to behave as a Patron. Blount, he instructs, must “study them for your better grace as our Gallants do fashions” (in order to put on a brave show as a proper “Patron”). The instructions include: “you must be proud and think you have merit enough in you, though your are ne’er so emptie”; then, when Thorpe appears to “bring … the book” (i.e., to present the book he has dedicated to this grand Patron, which is indeed, contra Wraight, the translation of Lucan), Blount should “take physic, and keep state, assign me a time by your man to come againe, and afore the day, be sure to have chang’d your lodging”. In the meantime, he should “sweat with the invention of some pitiful dry jest or two which you may happen to utter” but show “litle (or not at al) marking of your friends when you have found some way for them to come in at”, and “if by some chance something has dropt from you worth the taking up weary all that come to you with the often repetition of it”. Far from being instructions to (secretly) let hidden friends in at the back door of his (skilfully changed) lodgings, this is a satire on the way great men (those likely to be addressed for patronage) make their clients wait on them; over-rate and over-repeat their own wit; and do not mark (acknowledge) the wit of their friends, if they even give them a chance to say anything at all! Read in this way, the dedication is a hilarious in-joke between two publishers about the manners of great men.
If it needed any further proof that this reading fits, the end of the dedication says it all: while Thorpe doubts not that, were Blount to “mould himself to [these things]” it would not suit him, he goes on to say: “One special virtue in our Patrons of these daies I have promist myself you shall fit excellently, which is to give nothing”, i.e., Thorpe, unlike usual dedicators, requires no money of his Patron, “yet, thy love I will challenge as my peculiar Object both in this, and (I hope) many more succeeding offices”.
This small correction of a small part of the much larger argument Wraight makes should not be taken as a wholesale criticism of the book – I think there is a great deal of merit in her main argument. But perhaps it could serve as an illustration of the temptation to build labyrinthine twists and turns of conspiracy on very flimsy suppositions, and the dangers of so doing. It is possible to read secret messages into almost anything. Had Wraight stepped back for a second, she might have wondered why the news that Thorpe had spotted Marlowe, or instructions to meet secretly and deliver an important manuscript, would ever have been inserted into a printed dedication (necessitating cryptic and heavily disguised hints) when presumably Thorpe simply had to cross the churchyard and go and knock on Blount’s door.
© Cecilia Busby, October 2013
Cecilia Busby has a PhD from the London School of Economics and taught Social Anthropology for a number of years at the universities of Edinburgh, Goldsmiths and Kent. She has published The Performance of Gender (2000, Athlone) and a number of academic papers. More recently she has turned to writing fiction for children and, as C. J. Busby, is the author of the Frogspell series.
1As one of the reviewers of this piece has pointed out, orthodox Stratfordians are not guiltless of this tendency to ‘flights of fancy’ either.
3Ibid., p. 380.