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What is a commonplace book and how did Shakespeare use his?

One of the ways you can use Shooglebox is for squirrelling away all the interesting words of wisdom, quotations and other things you come across in your life – something writers and thinkers used to call commonplacing.

They used a blank commonplace book to capture quotes, facts, sayings, passages from books they were reading and things they'd seen or heard, as well as their own thoughts and ideas.

Entries were grouped under multiple commonplace headings so it was easy to explore and retrieve material to use in their own writing or arguments.

Shakespeare would have been taught the commonplacing method at school and would have used it to gather and draw on a wealth of old stories, proverbs and sayings that fed in to the creation of his plays and sonnets.

The method emerged in the 16th century at a time when, just like today, people were complaining of "information overload" – at that time, brought on by the explosion in book publishing.

The commonplace book acted as an external memory – more reliable than your own.

But the concept of using existing words and wisdom as inspiration for new thoughts dates even further back – to the ancient Greeks and beyond. Writing in 1620, Francis Bacon said: “The ancients followed the same course as ourselves … they, too, when commencing their meditations, laid up instances and particulars and digested them under topics and titles in their commonplace books.”

Commonplacing was the technique that helped Shakespeare and his contemporaries become so inventive and prolific in their output of plays to meet the demand of the audiences flocking to the Elizabethan playhouses.

In an essay on commonplacing, Walter J. Ong said: “Shakespeare did not ‘create’ from nothing. He did not want to, nor did he even consider the possibility. (There is no such possibility.)

“He wanted to rework the old wisdom in an always fresh and meaningful way.

“Shakespeare is perhaps our most quotable author in English, or at least the most quoted. It is, or should be, a commonplace that the reason he is quotable is that his text consists so much of quotations – not grossly appropriated, but nuanced, woven into the texture of his work …”

Many writers in the following centuries continued to rely on commonplace books. Jonathan Swift said:

"A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, as 'great wits have short memories'. A book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory. There you enter not only your own original thoughts (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but of other men."

Commonplacing techniques were taught at universities and manuals were published with advice on the best ways to keep and index your commonplace book.

Readers would highlight words or passages of interest as they went through a book, scribbling notes in the margins, then go back and identify the most interesting and useful extracts to be copied out by hand into their commonplace book. They would regularly go back through the index of their notebooks, and the notes themselves, looking for themes or connections they'd not noticed before.

The commonplace book of the 16th and 17th centuries was not portable – you couldn't juggle a big book, pen and inkstand on the move.

So how did you capture the things you saw or heard when out and about?

The answer was small erasable notebooks known as writing tables. These pocket-sized books came with a metal stylus and had rigid pages that had been treated so you could write on them then rub them clean with a damp cloth. When you got home you'd copy out content from your portable tables into your bigger commonplace book before wiping the pages clean.

Shakespeare refers to commonplace books and writing tables in several of his plays –including Hamlet, where the prince gets out his erasable pocket book to capture his thoughts after encountering the ghost of his father.

Shooglebox: Richard Burton as Hamlet, making a note in his portable writing tables
Hamlet makes a note in his portable 'writing tables' – Richard Burton in the title role on Broadway in 1964

With the invention of the fountain pen, it became easier to take notes on the move – and today we can instantly capture everything we see, hear and read on our mobile phones.

But we can still learn from the way the great writers of the past used their commonplace books.

Their value wasn't just as a second external memory – a repository for all the information you amassed. They allowed you to switch between order and disorder –digesting the contents, analysing themes, making links and connections, and using your judgment and imagination to create something new from what you rediscovered there.

Ann M. Blair's book Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age is an excellent exploration of the subject.


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