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Milton’s notes on Shakespeare appear to have been found (theguardian.com)
131 points by pepys 9 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 45 comments

I put the cam.ac.uk post on this up a couple days ago https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20969349

This is the better link. Omg I love this guys humble style. If I ever think I have made a big discovery in math or physics I am totally going to present it like this: "You know how I am always coming up with bad ideas that turn out to be wrong, well I just had another one. No big deal, silly me I can't help myself [big sigh] This is so embarrassing, but I think gravity and quantum physics could be related by ...

Thanks! I like your linked article quite a bit more. The photos comparing known-milton handwriting to the folio in question adds a lot.

Last paragraph, the discoverer is quoted:

>> This is evidence of how digital technology and the opening up of libraries [could] transform our knowledge of this period.

Indeed! Just bringing many more eyes (and perhaps AIs) to the works can vastly accelerate the growth of knowledge, and they're already doing further research based on this discovery.

Who knows how many more centuries this knowledge might have languished unrecognized, just sitting in the stacks? And how much more like it is still awaiting?

Agreed - and if anyone is interested in this specific sort of work ("meta-textual" analysis of things like marginalia and the material characteristics of a piece of writing) there is a wonderful resource in Rare Book School at the University of Virginia: https://rarebookschool.org. They offer summer classes and a fellowship program, and it isn't just about old books - when I was there I met people working on digital texts, and even things like the preservation and archiving of VHS tapes and other old analog formats.

Nick Wilding's discovery of a forged Galileo manuscript is another fun example of this type of research: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/16/a-very-rare-bo...


I studied under Terry Belanger there as an undergrad and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my time in university.

If you had asked me 5 minutes prior to reading about this, who was the earlier writer - Milton or Shakespeare? - I would have said Milton. I now know that it's the opposite. Shakespeare preceded Milton.

There's something about Shakespeare's writing that feels closer to modernity though. Milton seems sort of medieval, perhaps because of the religious themes (and the fact that I've only read a small portion of Paradise Lost...).

Multiple people have suggested this here. It seems very strange to me, since Shakespeare is one of the most famous Englishmen of the Elizabethan era, and Milton was politically active 50+ years later during the English Civil War.

People in the US don't even know there was an English Civil War.

A surprising number of English people don't know that there was an English Civil War. When you've got a thousand years of continuous history to pack in, Oliver Cromwell ends up being kind of a footnote.

Maybe if it had occurred before Shakespeare, instead of after, he could have written a cycle of plays about it, and we'd remember it as well as the Wars of the Roses. But as it is, English schoolchildren forget it as soon as class is over... and I suspect the rest of the UK cares even less.

My understanding is that we already had the notes, we just recognized that they're Milton's, is that correct?


So why is this so groundbreaking? At most, I'd expect it to be an interesting anecdote.

Because we care about what Milton wrote a lot more than we care about what some random book buyer wrote.

Why? We obviously read the notes and we didn't especially care for them before we found out they were Milton's, so why is that? This implies that we care more about a famous person writing dreck than an anonymous person writing fantastic insights.

The article mentions one allusion Milton made to Shakespeare. It is possible that we can learn more about what ideas Milton was referencing and responding to in Shakespeare. It gives us more insight into him than into Shakespeare.

Ah, that's fair.

If you find someone’s copy of a book that was an important influence on them, then by reading their marginal notes you can learn something about their work or life. We probably won’t learn much new about Shakespeare from reading Milton’s comments, but we can potentially learn a lot about Milton.

Perhaps not in this case, but often marginal notes are incomprehensible without context about what else the writer of the notes was reading, thinking about, or working on. Once you know who wrote the notes you can often understand more of their content and relevance.

That's part of it, I suspect. It's all so subjective, after all. And also, as noted, it aids interpretation of Milton's work.

I see a lot of evidence that these annotations are similar to Milton’s style. But the question is, are they more similar to Milton’s style than to any other random literati of the time? Has this been looked at?

I admit I only skimmed the article but it I didn't see it say that Milton actually physically met Shakespeare, right: this is simply a metaphorical use?

Doesn't detract from the excitement of the article, I just would love to think how the elder might have influenced the younger.

I'd think it would have to be metaphorical, if Wikipedia is correct - Wikipedia says Shakespeare died in 1616 and Milton was born in 1608... so if they did meet, there was no great exchange of ideas there.

Thanks, and blush for not doing my homework myself.

Well, don’t give me too much credit. I had to look it up because I was surprised to learn that Shakespeare and Milton were alive at the same time - but if I had been on a gameshow, I would have guessed that Milton lived and died hundreds of years before _Shakespeare_ was born.


"Please don't post shallow dismissals, especially of other people's work. A good critical comment teaches us something."


You're learning about how people thought and felt during the 16th century, and about how those people related to both their fellow man and the past (ie. Julius Ceasar). There's quite a bit to learn in Shakespeare, you just gotta be able to read between the lines.

Exactly this. I've heard people say that Dickens wrote amazing historical fiction - well, no, he wrote popular fiction.

At least there was injustice highlighted in Dickens.

Shylock the Jew wants a pound of flesh, in any interpretation of the work, teaches you nothing except Shakespeare was just another man of his times, who said words goodly.

Shylock wanted much more than just a pound of flesh. Shylock was very clear about the injustices that had been committed against him. The famous "hath not a Jew hands" speech is far more than just an incidental "Oh, yeah, antisemitism" add-on to the play. Shylock's plight is complex and real, not just a cardboard villain. There is a passing reference to his wife, who had given him the ring that his daughter stole, and it's utterly heartbreaking.

The play is actually quite sympathetic to Shylock, even if none of the other characters are. Antonio is no more a cardboard hero than Shylock is a cardboard villain. Neither is Portia, for that matter -- who is herself struggling with the injustice of her father controlling her from beyond the grave, marrying her off almost by lottery. The play is of its time, to be sure, but the people then were just as complex and conflicted as we are now, and a good performance of it today isn't easily dismissed as "look at the awful way people behaved 400 years ago".

Shakespeare was actually empathetic enough to have called out across the centuries to very different people, as well as being supreme in his use of words and ideas.

There is nothing "just another man of his times" about him.


He wrote it for me.

"When in disgrace with fortune in men's eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state / and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries / and look upon myself and curse my fate / wishing me like to one more rich in hope / featured like him, like him with friends possessed / desiring this man's art and that man's scope / with what I most enjoy contented least. . . ."

Of course he wrote it for me; that is a condition of the black woman. Of course, he was a black woman. I understand that. Nobody else understands it, but I know that William Shakespeare was a black woman.

- Maya Angelou.


If you read other plays of the era with Jewish characters, like Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (where the eponymous villain is a cartoon caricature), then you might better understand why there is room for nuance with Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock compared to his contemporaries.

Really? It doesn't teach us how the English (or Shakespeare writing to the English) thought about the Jews and their role in society? Cause I'd suggest it does. Just because the portrayal doesn't align with our modern values doesn't mean it has no value. How do we know what a "man of his times" would think without these works?

I had similar thoughts when I read the Old Testament - whether or not you believe that all of it is true (and, incidentally, there’s a lot less that’s hard to believe is/was true than you might think unless you’ve actually read it), it’s a fascinating and amazingly preserved anthropological look into ancient, ancient life.

Exactly. It lets you get into the mind of the narrator, and think about what they are saying and why. A really great old testament example of that is comparing Samuel and Kings to Chronicles - they are recounting the sam-ish time and place, but coming at it from totally different angles.

Had to fight off with this very argument when people kept suggesting that I don't need to read the Old Testament before getting to the Revelation: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19955193


Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

...and of course they're hoarding them instead of just putting up a torrent of high-res scans.

It is a public library and they are already putting it out a display open to the public (instead of keeping it in records in the back.) They are also making available other Milton stuff they have on hand such as a 1st edition of Paradise Lost.

Free Library of Philadelphia's Parkway Central branch 1901 Vine St., Philadelphia, PA 19103 Shakespeare First Folio on Display Monday, Sept. 16, through Saturday, Oct. 19

Source: https://www.phillyvoice.com/free-library-display-shakespeare...

So Shakespeare was real after all!

That take, Anonymous the movie :)

This is about Milton reading and annotating the published collection of Shakespeare's plays, not Milton meeting Shakespeare in person. It doesn't have any bearing on the debate over Shakespeare's identity.

The title is a little misleading.

Milton would have been not yet eight years old when Shakespeare died, to boot, so I'm not sure a physical meeting would have meant much to him.

People would be talking about him/her during that time, so I think their observation would have been very relevant had they made one about the identity.

Very few historians doubt Shakespeare's identity. Wikipedia doesn't even categorize him as "people's whose existence is disputed."

You're right, I shouldn't have even called it a debate.

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