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"Instruction and English Refinement in America:
Shakespeare, Anti-Theatricality, and Early Modern Reading"



Jennifer Mylander

Department of English

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

 
 

While manuscript records (surviving in probate inventories, wills, letters, and library catalogues) suggest that copies of Shakespeare’s plays were scarce in seventeenth-century English America, a copy of his Works was catalogued in the library of Harvard College by the mid-1720s. References to Shakespeare’s dramatic texts in private libraries of the early eighteenth century further indicate that the absence of references to Shakespeare in the preceding century may tell us more about pervasive anti-theatrical attitudes than it does about the circulation of dramatic texts. Lacking the cultural and literary value we place on these texts today, Shakespeare’s playbooks were measured in this early colonial period by their minimal resale value, categorized with other small unbound quartos and octavos in libraries and recorded only with phrases such as “a parcill of small bookes.” While it would be more than a century before Harvard would place Shakespeare’s Works within the formal curriculum, its appearance in the college library marks a significant shift in attitudes about the use of reading (if not actually performing) dramatic texts. In this paper I explore evidence of the reading of literary texts in instructional contexts in the decades preceding Shakespeare’s introduction to Harvard’s library. Dramatic texts—and, more frequently, the prose source texts for English plays—may have been used in colonial America as part of continued education for those who had already mastered reading literacy and basic devotional training. In 1680s Massachusetts, for example, an orthodox minister used Marlowe’s source text for Dr. Faustus to teach critical reading skills and to communicate expectations of “civilized” behavior. While the children of the poor in colonial America were set to work at home or in service by the age of seven or eight, the offspring of the colonial elite had access to continuing education that, between 1680 and 1725, increasingly focused on teaching the “refinement” of manners, speech, and mind. This paper explores the role of dramatic and literary texts in continuing education that promoted the growing culture of refinement in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English America.

 



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