Monday, May 11, 2009

Cleopatra--Samuel Daniel (1594)
This is a closet drama in verse. Samuel Daniel (1562-1619) was considered an important poet in his time, which was not a weak one for poetry. He was right in the thick of the literary scene/cultural dialogue, what have you, that included Spenser, Sidney, Ralegh, Marlowe and Shakespeare, and he had the patronage of the queen. There is even a "tradition" that he was named Laureate, which in those days was a sinecure hotly contested among good poets for the income that came with it, upon the death of Spenser in 1599, though his monographer Cecil Seronsy (professor at Bloomsburg [Pa] State College [now University] 1967) says this is "extremely doubtful"; the position went to Ben Jonson instead. His biography makes for a somewhat interesting comparison point with that of Shakespeare, who was his exact contemporary. Of his boyhood, "nothing is known". There was a rumor that his father was a music master, though "no evidence has been found to support" this claim. Once he turns up at Oxford he begins to leave more of the paper trail that Shakespeare did not, mainly through publications of his poetry. It also appears that, like Spenser and other poets, he was received by and moved comfortably among people of rank and wealth, though he does not appear to have had much cash of his own. There is a letter to him from an unknown correspondent from 1582 that makes note of his retiring personality, which is the sort of thing we so desperately want to find about Shakespeare or his puppeteer. It is known that he went to France and Italy for five years and delivered dispatches from the ambassador to Paris at Windsor Castle. Skimming ahead there is an impressive amount of contemporary information available about the progession of his literary career, though his family circumstances and background are never made clear. As noted earlier, he appeared to spend much time as a guest at various wealthy people's estates, which sounds like nice work if you can get it, especially as he does not appear to have been particularly socially entertaining. Daniel had quite a bit of early success before the Shakespeare juggernaut got really rolling so that although he is only two years older than Will he often seems to be categorized as a predecessor to him as much as a contemporary, particularly as his Cleopatra is mostly thought of now as one of the source materials that influenced the later Antony and Cleopatra. Interestingly Daniel made a revision of his play in 1607 after Shakespeare's had appeared which Professor Seronsy speculates was "possibly under the influence" of the later and superior version.

This Cleopatra, a verse tragedy in which the characters make alternating long expository speeches, is pretty good read as a long poem. We think--or maybe it is just I who tend to think this--that the quantity of really good-quality English verse produced over the last 700 years is shockingly small, but a lot of these old forgotten poets who wrote thousands of lines and told all manner of accounts through the poetic medium are not bad, though obviously they lack the power and consistent metaphorical brilliance of Shakespeare and other major poets. I doubt that many people outside of graduate school can have read this, given the effort I had to go to to obtain a single copy of it. As I will be one of the few people on the internet to have written anything about it at some length, I want to do it as much justice as I can, as it is a worthy piece of literature. Scholars seem to like him. Professor Seronsy's book has a six page bibliography, though the most recent edition of Daniel's actual collected works (5 vols.) is listed as 1896, and the text is "frequently untrustworthy". The University of Louvain published an edition of Cleopatra alone in 1911, which apparently was unobjectionable. In any case I couldn't find any of these editions, or any other ones, available either for sale or in a library that I had access to. Thanks to the wonders of the Google book project however I discovered that this play was printed in full in Volume V of the 1964 King's College of London compendium of the Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Though I could have then read the play on the computer if all else failed, I haven't taught myself to like doing that yet, and I found someone who was actually selling a copy of this book, which is most handsome and impressive in that very self-important 1950s and 1960s university press way, as you can see below:

This series has seven volumes in all, "in which the major sources and analogues of Shakespeare's plays will be reprinted, with discussions on the way he used them." And you thought my blog was a labor out of all proportion to any readership on which it might ever produce a significant effect. Volume V is dedicated to the Roman Plays. Among the materials included are 6 of Plutarch's lives (in the North translation), Pescetti's Il Cesare, Cinthio's Cleopatra, the anonymous Caesar's Revenge, and the Countess of Pembroke's Antonie, along with Daniel and many smaller excerpts from Roman, medieval and Renaissance authors.

Having gone on so long with my introductions, I think I will hold off on my notes on the actual play until the next post(s).

Some might be curious about the St John's College paperweight shown in this photo. It was a graduation gift from a family member who obviously did not foresee the coming digital revolution and obsolescence of books and paper any more than I did. I actually got two St John's College paperweights as gifts, the other one was a glass star with the seal of the college cut into it. I don't know where that one is now.

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