The printed word

Title page of Robert Greene's Pandosto (public domain: https://archive.org/details/dorastusfawnia00thomuoft
Title page of Robert Greene’s Pandosto (public domain: https://archive.org/details/dorastusfawnia00thomuoft

The title page of Robert Greene’s play Pandosto — published in 1588 and providing a model for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1611?) — has some wonderful phrases which, incidentally, have a universal application to much fiction. This ‘pleasant Historie’ is claimed to show that, although Truth may be concealed ‘by the meanes of sinister Fortune’

yet by Time in spight of fortune it is most manifestly revealed.

In these post-truth times it may be heartening to believe that truth will eventually out, though that’s little consolation when we’re in the middle of so much that causes us grave consternation. Greene’s expressions of optimism are underlined by the first half of a statement he gives and which are attributed to the astronomer Johannes Kepler: Temporis filia veritas; cui me obstetricari non pudet. (‘Truth is the daughter of time, and I feel no shame in being her midwife.’)

A little further on we’re assured that this Historie is ‘pleasant for age to avoyde drowsie thoughtes’ — that’s us older readers — as well as ‘profitable for youth to eschue other wanton pastimes’ — though what these wanton pastimes might be that younger readers should eschew we can only guess. The final promise is that it shall bring ‘to both a desired content’, thereby turning tragic thoughts to happy ones.

Yet another quote is appended, this time from Ars Poetica by the Roman writer Horace. The full sentence (Greene includes only the first part) is Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci, lectorem delectando pariterque monendo. One translation gives this as, ‘He wins every hand who mingles profit with pleasure, by delighting and instructing the reader at the same time.’

Delight and instruction, pleasure and profit: these are the twin virtues of reading, are they not, especially in the sum of their parts. Instruction and profit may to the epicure seem like dirty words, sullied as they often are by puritan ethics, but reading fiction can be a relatively painless way of learning and of gaining insights, all to our intellectual advantage and increase of wisdom. I need not add that reading is also a consolation devoutly to be wished.

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