Contexts and Reception
These days, we expect our literary writers to be distinctive, even original. Students taking classes in prose and poetic composition are urged ‘to find their own voices’, and to seek to differentiate their writing both from what has come before, and from others writing in the same field. A network of social and legal restraints protects and legitimates an author’s published writing, so that if others want to repeat or adapt it, they must acknowledge that use openly, and they often have to pay for the privilege. Sixteenthcentury English writers, by contrast, faced none of these restraints. On the contrary, in their training they were encouraged to imitate past writers; they were taught to mine other authors’ work for apt expressions and choice insights, and to collect them in notebooks for later use; and they often worked collaboratively in ways that can be difficult for us (with our enlightened ideas about authorship and copyright) to understand. Throughout his career Spenser engaged with the writings of other poets, both dead and living, in a way that would, today, certainly land him in court. But we should not make the mistake of assuming that a collaborative or derivative literary work is, by its collaborative or imitative nature, somehow bad; nor should we think Spenser was alone in writing in this way. Shakespeare lifted whole passages from his sources, and some of his greatest plays (e.g. Hamlet) are rewritings of existing materials by other playwrights. Instead, we should recognise that our own assumptions about originality and authority are unhistorical and problematic. Early modern ideas about translation, imitation and allusion offered Spenser challenges and artistic opportunities largely unavailable to modern writers.
The nature and causes of the differences between early modern and modern