Shakespearean Ballads in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Transition from Oral Songs to Printed Historical Documents

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Minoru Mihara


Thomas Percy’s ballad collection, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, marks a point of intersection between balladry and Shakespeareana, which both went through a transitional phase from vocal performance to literary undertaking in the eighteenth century. In the Reliques, ballads that had been orally transmitted by minstrels were changed into validated printed sources for a scholarly project. This transition helped eighteenth-century editors gain a historical understanding of Shakespeare and emend his traditionally received texts. These editors were persuaded to use the ballads in the Reliques as reliable sources for their emendation since they were printed as authoritative documents that were useful for their academic editions of Shakespeare. They gained easy textual access to the printed ballads in the Reliques to search for contextual or emendatory materials. A comparison of four Shakespeare-related ballads in the Reliques (“King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid,” “Take Thy Old Cloak about Thee,” “Willow, Willow, Willow,” and “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”) to their counterparts in editions of Shakespeare reveals that the ballads that were printed as historical documents in the Reliques advanced the editors’ contextual illustration of Shakespeare and that they authorized the emendation of the textus receptus. This article focuses on the effect of the historical information provided by Percy’s printed ballads on George Steevens’s and Edmond Malone’s contextualization of Shakespeare and on their emendation of Shakespearean texts. In addition, it concentrates on the possibility that Edward Capell referred to Shakespearean ballads in Percy’s Reliques combined with old Quarto editions of Shakespeare’s works.

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Author Biography

Minoru Mihara, University of the Ryukyus

MINORU MIHARA is associate professor in the Department of Law and Letters at the University of the Ryukyus.