The Epic Milton

Can there be any more desirable book in the world than Milton’s copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio? This remarkable bibliographical discovery in the Free Library of Philadelphia throws new light on the reverence of the future author of the greatest epic in English for the greatest dramatist in English. For into this precious volume the young Milton, then probably still an undergraduate at Cambridge, transcribed passages he found in quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays that were missing from the First Folio. As Nicholas McDowell observes in his new book Poet of Revolution, he was applying the same scholarly method of textual collation to a contemporary English playwright—he was seven when Shakespeare died—as he was accustomed to do when studying the greatest classical and Renaissance works. He, John Milton, had already fixed upon his life’s ambition: to write epic poetry in the vernacular that would stand comparison with Homer, Virgil, and Dante.

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