Take note, take note, O playgoer

NO doubt it would have prompted that rogue Falstaff to ad-lib a jocular aside to Prince Hal, if he had spotted it. It might even have roused an extra guffaw among the groundlings at a particular performance of Shakespeare's ``King Henry IV, Part I'' in the 1590s. Why the stir? Because, somewhere in the audience, someone (like Shaw's much later Professor Higgins in Covent Garden Market, to the indignation of Eliza Doolittle) was taking notes. That, at least, is the enchanting explanation offered by Sotheby's auction house of an old water-stained manuscript recently brought to light: ``Notes by a Spectator at a Play in Shakespeare's Lifetime,'' the announcement says.

Falstaff and his cronies might have been even more tickled by the fact that this man's vellum-bound notebook has been discovered in an old chest of drawers belonging to ``an English family of ancient lineage (preferring to remain anonymous) ... behind the underclothes.'' It makes one speculate mischievously how long it could have been since the said contents of the drawer had been cleared out. The manuscript is to be sold at Sotheby's in London on Dec. 18 and is expected to fetch about 150,000 ($220,000).

What a fascinating glimpse of Shakespeare's time this discovery presents, if its interpretation is right. The note-taker (whose name isn't known) was quite possibly seeing the actors ``play out the play'' for the very first time.

Imagine being at the first performance of ``Hamlet'' before anyone had ever heard ``To be, or not to be.'' Or encountering Macbeth's ``weird sisters'' or Sir Toby Belch ahead of the rest of the world.

Anyway, this 16th-century spectator was quick enough to realize something about William Shakespeare that has, over the succeeding centuries, become a truism: that he wrote words that are eminently, unavoidably, gloriously quotable. Rough headings in the note-taker's notebook suggest to experts that he intended to transfer his selections into a ``commonplace book,'' a personal anthology of quotations.

If so, his desires were well founded. Today, nearly 400 years later, there are more items in ``The Oxford Book of Quotations'' taken from the works of Shakespeare than from any source other than the Bible and the English Prayer Book.

The practice of note-taking at plays is recorded by Shakespeare's slightly younger contemporary, the dramatist and satirist John Marston. In his satire ``The Scourge of Villanie,'' written in the 1590s, he describes the type of man who ``Hath made a common-place booke out of playes, And speakes in print.''

It seems that even then the practice of making a commonplace book called forth a slight sneer - though the idea had classical origins mentioned by Aristotle and Cicero. The theory was that it was useful to bring together for reference general statements or themes that could be applied to a variety of occasions: a practical help, for instance, for speechmakers, legal men, and sermonizers.

But the catch is evident: To collect quotations - commonplaces - educative as it may be, can also be a way of saving oneself from original thinking. After all, true originators don't go around with a notebook recording memorable phrases, do they?

As Jonathan Swift put it in the 18th century (in his ``Digression in Praise of Digression,'' which I've never read except as excerpted in ``The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations''): ``What though his head be empty, provided his commonplace book be full.'' Point taken.

Nowadays, presumably, we can feel superior to the concept of collecting commonplaces. The world has surely grown out of such childish forms of accumulating the memorable, treating literature piecemeal like snapshots for the family album.

Surely long gone are the days when an author as respectable as Gibbon could reveal unashamedly in his autobiography (1794) that he had ``filled a folio common-place book'' with his ``collections and remarks on the geography of Italy.'' Or when the Illustrated London News - as it did as recently as 1887 - could advise readers: ``When you come to a passage ... worthy of being commonplaced, copy it legibly in your commonplace book.'' Surely most people today would agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson when he wrote laconically in his Journals in May 1849: ``I hate quotations.''

Not so. Quotations are still going strong. Shelves in bookstores groan under the weight of the ``commonplace books'' of today: ``Modern Quotations,'' ``The International Thesaurus of Quotations,'' ``The Dictionary of Catch-Phrases,'' ``Still More of WHO SAID THAT?'' - you name it.

At least one current playwright, Alan Bennett, happily admits to his own form of commonplace-book-in-reverse. He carries a notebook around with him and jots down overheard remarks. Many of them are later respoken by actors on the West End stage or British television.

Who knows, perhaps Shakespeare himself did something similar. Or did he really invent such phrases as ``On, bacons, on!'' or ``I am as vigilant as a cat to steal cream''?

It seems likely that today more people would agree with Winston Churchill than the quote-hating Emerson. As a young man Churchill made up for a lack of schooling by following the advice he later expressed so proverbially: ``It is a good thing,'' he wrote (and publishers of books of quotations have loved him for it), ``for an uneducated man to read books of quotations.''

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