AUSTIN, Texas — A printer’s ornament on the title pages of William Shakespeare’s earliest works suggests that from an early stage in his career, the poet received significant support in fashioning a unique brand.
In an essay forthcoming in Shakespeare Quarterly, Douglas Bruster, an English professor at The University of Texas at Austin, draws on archival research to identify an Elizabethan “Shakespeare brand” in the decorative headpiece printed on the title pages of the poems “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece.”
“It’s a gorgeous picture that has been in plain sight for centuries,” Bruster said. “It’s pagan, luxurious, busy and full of life. The female face at the center is the perfect match for what he was extremely talented at doing. It’s a symbol that paves the way for Juliet, Beatrice and Cleopatra.”
Bruster refers to the design as “Lady 8,” in reference to its placement in a catalog of ornaments used by Shakespeare’s friend and publisher Richard Field. Field placed the ornament on the title page of each of Shakespeare’s poems; he had not used it so prominently before and would not do so again.
“Field’s carefulness as a printer is nowhere more apparent than his use of ornaments,” Bruster said. “It has a sort of final effect on the entire piece. It was very valuable, requiring hundreds of hours of craftsmanship to produce.”
French in style, the ornament is a prestigious Renaissance symbol, often associated with aristocrats and French Protestants known as Huguenots. Sometimes thought to be a “closet Catholic,” Shakespeare also mixed with immigrant Protestants in his day, Bruster explained. These French immigrants were particularly skilled in arts and crafts.
“Shakespeare was often criticized by other writers for his lack of schooling,” Bruster said. “So you can imagine the young writer’s concerns for how his poems would appear when published. He seems to have had a little help from his friend Richard Field.”
The ornament signified prestige, reminding people of the peak of the Elizabethan era. It was soon deployed by publishers interested in trading on Shakespeare’s growing celebrity, Bruster discovered.
“This ornament was used very deliberately,” Bruster said. “It goes to show that Shakespeare’s status was both recognized and enabled by peers who valued his talent much earlier than the traditional narrative suggests.”