Toward a Sustainable Source Study

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In this self-reflective era of Shakespeare studies, source study is anomalous: a critical practice that remains unexamined yet ubiquitous, unfashionable yet not quite obsolete. Old as it is, source study lacks the elaborate narratives of birth, entrenchment, and reinvention that support most traditions of Shakespeare scholarship. Recently, however, the “undertheorized” state of source study has been noted prominently by Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith (16). Their article, “What Is a Source? Or, how Shakespeare read his Marlowe,” leads off the 2015 Shakespeare Survey volume on “Shakespeare, Origins and Originality” (16). The convergence of that volume and the present collection suggests that Shakespeare scholars finally are ready to examine source study’s history, consider its hidden costs, and imagine better options. Future source-study projects need not comprise a uniform practice, but they should reach beyond the status quo to imagine and articulate clear aims. This essay reviews the anomalous place of source study in the history of Shakespeare studies, considers why the method persists despite such devaluation, and explores the model’s most problematic assumptions and then turns to my practice of source study, stating my aims and demonstrating them in action. My purpose is not to condemn source study as retrograde yet again or to forbid the term. Rather, I propose that a new frankness about the stakes of textual interchange-whatever we call it-can ensure a more sustainable scholarly future not just for Shakespeare, but for early modern cultural studies. I borrow the term “sustainable” from environmental thinkers to remind us that our scholarly practices do have systemic impact. Source study, conceived as the study of dead relics, contributes to the sense that early modern studies are moribund; source study, conceived as the study of living cultural ecosystems, points to a sustainable future for the study of the past. My own practice of source study hopes to sustain responsibility to the material record, cultural inclusiveness, and public access to the fruits of research.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationRethinking Shakespeare Source Study
Subtitle of host publicationAudiences, Authors, and Digital Technologies
EditorsDennis Austin Britton, Melissa Walter
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9781315649061
ISBN (Print)9781138123076
StatePublished - Apr 2018

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Shakespeare

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


Dive into the research topics of 'Toward a Sustainable Source Study'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this