It’s Commonplace

When I first was getting really into Shakespeare, I bought a bracelet that said ‘this above all: to thine own self be true’ on it. When I got more into Shakespeare, I was embarrassed by this and got rid of it as the most obvious example of faux-profound Shakespeare being taken out of context by people who don’t understand it.

And then I learned about commonplacing.

When Hamlet cries ‘My tables! Meet it is I set it down…’, he’s participating in a hot Elizabethan trend: carrying around little books (called, that’s right, a commonplace book) to write things down. Things you heard, things you saw, or things you read. As commonplacing grew increasingly, well, common, printers started getting in on the act by marking out phrases in their books that might be ripe for commonplacing. They were indicated with little quote marks like this: “.

Here’s an example from Internet Shakespeare Editions:

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 9.19.28 PM.png

And here’s another:

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 9.18.52 PM

Yes, ‘to thine own self be true’ was being held up as an inspirational quote out of context even in 1603.

I admit that at first, I found this practice more than a little odd. If you’re meant to be collecting quotes and ideas that appeal to you, why would you want them pre-selected? Isn’t half the point choosing your favorite lines for yourself? But then I started noticing that we’ve created a contemporary version.

Here’s an article from n+1, one from Medium, and one from HowlRound. They all have something in common: the pull quotes all come with a Twitter button underneath them. You can automatically tweet those phrases without even having to open a new tab. I don’t know if this necessarily makes commonplace marks make more sense to me, but at least it shows a consistent impulse. And, to be fair, the guesses of both commonplacers and pull-quoters about which gobbets will be appealing are usually right.

So really, I should be regretting getting rid of that bracelet…

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