Mar 08 2014

Commonplacing The Duchess of Malfi: Sparknotes à la 1623

Published by at 8:37 pm under Uncategorized

Long ago and far away, in a land without Kindles, wikiquotes, or even the common paperback, Renaissance readers would keep commonplace books, blank books into which they would transcribe notes, poems, recipes, sermons, quotations, and anything else that caught their fancy for later use. Theirs was a culture that prized a prettily or wittily turned phrase. Indeed, English Renaissance playgoers would speak not of “seeing” a play but of “hearing” one. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, printed books started to appear with commonplace markers, aids for the eager (but less apt) consumer. Commonplace markers look like modern quotation marks, but they mark lines that are quotable rather than lines taken from other sources; I suppose you could say that they’re quotation-marks-in-waiting.

Some of the “good bits” of The Duchess of Malfi (1623):

The great are like the base; nay, they are the same
When they seek shameful ways to avoid shame.

Though Lust do mask in ne’er so strange disguise,
She’s oft found witty but is never wise.

It is some mercy when men kill with speed.

There’s no deep valley but near some great hill.

Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright,
But looked to near have neither heat nor light.

Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like Diamonds we are cut with our own dust.


–Megan Smith, dramaturg

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