On the Eve of Shakespeare

John Cox, Ph.D. | DuMez Professor of English Emeritus

How might the playwrights of the Reformation and pre-Reformation eras — even the great Bard of Avon himself, William Shakespeare — have reacted to seeing their works dissected and reviewed online?

Dr. John Cox doesn’t know, of course — but he could make an educated guess. An internationally respected Shakespeare scholar and former president of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, Cox is creating what are known as critical editions of pre-Reformation plays for a website called Digital Renaissance Editions.

Portraits of Benjamin Jonson (National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2752) and Christopher Marlowe (The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) appear as insets to the right, over a large painting of Shakespeare's face, attrib. John Taylor, c. 1600-1610, National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1, behind a dark turquoise overlay.

Currently he’s working through a series of 15th- and 16th-century morality plays. He began with Mankind, then moved on to Wisdom.

“It’s a play probably written by and for monks in a monastery, in a place called Bury St. Edmunds,” Cox deduces. “The play actually has no title but has been given different titles, one of which is Wisdom Who is Christ. Obviously, ‘Wisdom’ in the play is Christ.”

Compiling critical editions is a painstaking process involving equal measures of scholarship, analysis and investigation. “Establishing the text is the first thing,” explains Cox. “The Oxford English Dictionary is absolutely crucial, as is the Middle English Dictionary. Some of the plays are very obscure, and some scholarly work is better than others.”

“I find out various things that are alluded to in a text, like background and context. I annotate, or write notes, on what I find, write an introduction. There’s lots of stuff to look at. It’s a lot of work.”

What fuels his drive for such meticulous research, particularly given his retirement from Hope College in 2015? His passion for Shakespeare, which sparked his enthusiasm for other playwrights who wrote concurrently or in the preceding era. Author of The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350 to 1642, Cox recently published an article on the stage prayers of Shakespeare contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.

“It occurred to me that no one had written about Shakespeare’s prayers, and I thought I ought to know a little bit about the stage prayers of his contemporaries,” Cox says. “Marlowe was so resistant to the status quo, such a rebel, while Jonson’s instincts were much more conservative, more satirical. They made an interesting pairing.”

Cox says there wasn’t enough material for a book about prayers in Shakespeare’s plays, but he wrote four chapters that were published as separate essays.

Playwrights of the Reformation era “were always writing about past events, not about their own culture,” he says. “That was really not something they dared to do. It was too risky. However, in writing about other cultures they were really making comments about their own, but in disguise.”

Images: Benjamin Jonson (National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2752).
Christopher Marlowe (The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).
Shakespeare (attrib. John Taylor, c. 1600-1610, National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1).