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Shakespeare Only

Three decades of controversy in Shakespeare studies can be summed up in a single question: Was Shakespeare one of a kind? On one side of the debate are the Shakespeare lovers, the bardolatrists, who insist on Shakespeare’s timeless preeminence as an author. On the other side are the theater historians who view modern claims of Shakespeare’s uniqueness as a distortion of his real professional life. 
In Shakespeare Only, Knapp draws on an extraordinary array of historical evidence to reconstruct Shakespeare’s authorial identity as Shakespeare and his contemporaries actually understood it.  He argues that Shakespeare tried to adapt his own singular talent and ambition to the collaborative enterprise of drama by imagining himself as uniquely embodying the diverse, fractious energies of the popular theater. Rewriting our current histories of authorship as well as Renaissance drama, Shakespeare Only recaptures a sense of the creative force that mass entertainment exerted on Shakespeare and that Shakespeare exerted on mass entertainment.

256 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2009

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


“Jeffrey Knapp’s Shakespeare Only is a decisive and brilliant advance in our understanding of Shakespeare and of his literary culture. The book sweeps away many wide-spread misconceptions about Renaissance authorship and provides detailed evidence for the ways Elizabethan and Jacobean readers and audiences actually thought about the creators of the plays they enjoyed. Above all, Knapp provides a remarkable, deeply compelling account of Shakespeare’s own strangely paradoxical conception of authorship. That conception, Knapp shows, entailed in the interest of ambition the abandonment of dreams of absolute sovereignty and an unprecedented plunge into collaboration and commonness.”

Stephen Greenblatt

“Was Shakespeare one of a kind? The pursuit of this question leads Jeffrey Knapp on a wide-ranging study of Renaissance authorship. Amassing a formidable array of fact and argument, Shakespeare Only takes issue with the collaborative model of playwrighting currently in vogue among historicist critics, and argues persuasively that the single-author paradigm established itself in the theater earlier and more forcefully than has been thought. Knapp shows that the much-maligned ‘author-function’ plays a vital role not only in the production of Renaissance drama but in the plots of the plays themselves, where themes of death, resurrection, and inheritance frequently allegorize the vicissitudes of authorship. This is a sharply-argued intervention in current critical debates.”

Richard Halpern, Johns Hopkins University

“One of the profession’s finest historicists takes on one of that school’s most precious credos: the tenet that authorship as we know it did not exist in Shakespeare’s England. Knapp does not reject the historicist enterprise, however, in favor of an unreformed Bardolatory, but rather renders more vivid and precise our picture of just what dramatic authorship was and could be in the Renaissance. With erudition, tact, and the deepest sympathy for both the poetry and the praxis of England’s greatest playwright, Knapp delivers us a Shakespeare whose experiments with different authorial models, including collaborative ones, helped shape the form and pressure of his plays.”

Julia Reinhard Lupton, University of California, Irvine

“Knapp’s intriguing thesis is that Shakespeare consciously sought a singular status as an author by going against the dominant early modern elitism. Shakespeare, in this reading, understands that modern capitalist necessity of having a broad base for commercial and artistic success.”


“The readings of the plays . . .  are wide-ranging, sometimes iconoclastic, and, in many instances, fascinating.”

Literature and History

Shakespeare Only is a major revisionary study. This historically contextualized account of Shakespeare’s sense of authorship alters our understanding not only of him and his chief rival, Ben Johnson (who gets illuminating treatment throughout as Shakespeare’s foil), but also, more broadly, of the changing nature of English Renaissance dramatic authorship. Jeffrey Knapp argues that Shakespeare, embracing the commercial theater in which he was playwright, actor, and stockholder, staked his claim to greatness on a literary versatility attuned to his diverse audience. As befits a book on Shakespeare’s masterful variety, Knapp brings to bear a range of scholarly virtues rarely found together: an imaginative yet healthily skeptical approach to historical evidence, a command of theoretical debates with an eye alert to obfuscations and unwarranted assumptions, and an extremely subtle critical handling of literary texts and their implications.”

Joshua Scodel | Modern Language Quarterly

“Overturns the new historicist position that authorial production by a singular individual is a mid-18th-century notion . . . But Knapp’s destruction of this new historicist idea pales by comparison with his readings of Shakespeare’s work . . . in which he shows that Shakespeare’s writing is oriented around authorship. Most striking is Knapp’s revelation that Shakespeare empowers his own authorial identity by repeatedly emphasizing his shame at being an author . . . Essential.”


 “In his timely and persuasive new book, Knapp deftly charts the waters between the Scylla and Charybdis of Shakespeare’s authorial identity. . . . Knapp’s attention to detail, astute research, and careful synthesis of late twentieth-century scholarship is impressive. . . . Shakespeare Only in invaluable for its clear retelling of the history of Shakespeare studies over the past thirty years and its reconsideration of single authorship.”

Sixteenth-Century Journal

Table of Contents




1   Our Humble Author  

2   The Author Staged  

3   The Author Sacrificed  

4   The Author Revived  



Works Cited  



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