The Work of Writing: Contextual Economies from Petrarch to Shakespeare

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Part two of our interview with William J. Kennedy, author of Petrarchism at Work: Contextual Economies in the Age of Shakespeare. Read part one here.

Sage House: When you first talked to us about the economic perspective of your book, you mentioned your children, who are young adults making their way in the world, as an inspiration. Can you talk more about that?

William Kennedy: Going back to my adult offspring, our son was trying to mount a career as a musician [in the late 2000s]. Concurrently, our daughter had finished her law degree and was working in the not-for-profit sector [when the Great Recession of 2008–2009 hit]. It was an education for both of them to try to get themselves on their feet. So the experience of our adult children, and certainly the wider experience of economic crisis, got me thinking about these economic questions.


Just wage and inequality, distributive justice, commutative justice: these are all key tenets of moral philosophy in the late middle ages and early modern period.


SH: So you kind of experienced the recession most vividly through your children’s hardship, and these issues came to the fore of your mind at that time. Was this book inspired directly by that?

WK: That’s why I’m calling it a contextual economy. Medieval economics is not systematic economics as we know it now. It’s really a branch of moral philosophy. Questions of just wage and inequality; distributive justice, which means that you deserve what you earn; and commutative justice, which tries to rebalance the imbalances of society: these are all key tenets of moral philosophy in the late middle ages and in the early modern period.

SH: So that idea of moral economy developed as the mercantile society developed? How do you connect that to the role of the artist, the writer?

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Engraved portrait of William Shakespeare from the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623 (Wikimedia Commons)

WK: Can I bring in Shakespeare again? Shakespeare entered the last phase of his life as a very wealthy individual, having amassed a considerable amount of cash. He bought up a lot of land in Stratford, and essentially bought the title of “gentleman.” And the way Shakespeare acquired his money was certainly not by selling folios or quarto editions of his plays. In fact, his name didn’t even appear on the covers of quarto editions until fairly late in the game, in 1598, perhaps a decade after he began his theatrical career. As you may know, he acted as well as wrote for a company of players, Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Very early on, he became a shareholder in that company, which meant that he would get a guaranteed percentage of the profits, whether or not he wrote plays or acted in them. And so, he could have retired pretty early, just on his investment in Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

We don’t know how he got the money [to invest in LCM]. The prevalent thought is that he’d already attracted a patron because of his poetry: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrese. We also have certain evidence that he was circulating his sonnets in manuscripts that were not published until 1609, very late in his career. Apparently he was very abstemious. But the point is that—and this is all speculation— he probably got a bag of gold that went into the stock company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men. There were eight or so principal investors, Shakespeare being one of them.


The way Shakespeare acquired his money was certainly not by selling folios or quarto editions of his plays. Very early on, he became a shareholder in a company of players, Lord Chamberlain’s Men.


SH: So he didn’t get rich from having his plays performed? He didn’t get a cut from that?

WK: Yes, he did get a cut. Shareholders who were also scriptwriters and performers got more than what were called journeymen actors and writers. The average income for a journeyman writing a play was seven pounds—which is okay, considering that a skilled laborer would have an annual income of about ten pounds. But it might take some people a year, or even more, to write a play, especially if, like you and me, we revise. We don’t just turn out a book a year! So the point is that, whether he wrote or not, Shakespeare was going to get a cut as an investor.

SH: It sounds quite modern, because you’re kind of talking about the monetization of writing. Quintilian talked about the importance of writing for a specific audience, but increasingly for Shakespeare or other playwrights of his time, awareness of audience might have been the most important consideration of all.

WK: Certainly Shakespeare wrote for mass audiences, and the preponderant evidence is that Shakespeare was a collaborator. Not all of his plays were written exclusively by him. It was theatre, and that’s what theatre is, a collaborative product.

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Gaspara Stampa (Wikimedia Commons)

Probably the author discussed in the book [who most exemplifies the cultivation of audience in service of career] is Gaspara Stampa, the woman poet of the Italian Renaissance who literally invented a career for herself as a singer of her own poetry—a singer songwriter. She played lute and sang her songs. But the kinds of women who did that in Venice in the early sixteenth century were not very reputable. They were courtesans who entertained not only in the public sphere but also in the private bedrooms of the gentlemen who sought their favors. It seems to me that when Gaspara Stampa’s poetry was rediscovered in the beginning of the twentieth century, she was considered just as a courtesan who spent her evenings performing for the population and her nights in the arms of noblemen. I see a more professional drive there. She took her work very seriously. She had artistic ambitions, and she professionalized the performance of poetry by women like herself. I don’t think she necessarily thought of herself as an elite poet, but as a serious one, crafting work. You see that in the record of revision.


Gaspara Stampa, the woman poet of the Italian Renaissance, literally invented a career for herself as a singer of her own poetry—a singer songwriter.


And while we’re talking about revision again, let me add a pitch for Michelangelo. He never published his poetry, although it appears that at one time he planned to. But the manuscripts that survive are full of cross-outs, additions, alternate phrases, and complete rewrites. My chapter on his poems looks at them under a microscope. As much as any other writer in the book, Michelangelo exemplified what it means to be “At Work” in a contextual economy.

The Work of Writing: Contextual Economies from Petrarch to Shakespeare