Playwrights and Plays

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Publication and Authorship in Elizabethan and Jacobean Culture.

Text of Playwrights and Plays

  • What d id publ ica t ion o f p lays and asser t ions o f au thorsh ip s ign i fy in E l izabe than and Jacobean cu l ture ?

    Modern understanding of copyright and ownership must be left at the door when consid-ering the publication of William Shakespeares plays. It is easy to become quite baffled, notions of intellectual property and lit-erary identity of the 16th and 17th centuries are so conflicting to those of the 21st that they seem quite the opposite. Before we look specifically at Shake-speare let us consider the gen-eral atmosphere of the Elizabe-than times with regard to authorship and publication.

    Unlike today the play in Elizabethan England was con-sidered to be a sub-literary genre. Playwrights had no legal

    rights over their manuscripts and usually sold them for 5 to 8 to professional playing com-pany. These companies would then manipulate and rewrite the script to conform to their re-sources such as actors and props. If a play was ever com-mitted to paper, it would usually be a single copy - the official copy - in the form of a prompt book. A prompt -book was a transcript of the play used dur-ing performances, cluttered with stage directions, instructions for sound effects, and the names of the actors. So it seems that playwrights had no rights within the theatrical scene they had just as many in the publication of their plays. Printers typically

    paid about 2 for a manuscript play, with total disregard as to whether the person selling the script was its author or not. Un-principled publishers would steal the prompt -book, and sell cop-ies for about fivepence apiece. "In March 1599, the theatrical manager Philip Henslowe en-deavored to induce a publisher who had secured a playhouse copy of the comedy "Patient Grissell," by Dekker, Chettle, and Haughton, to abandon the publication of it by offering him a bribe. The publication was suspended until 1603. These conditions allowed the true composition of the plays to be distorted and manipulated.



    Publication and Authorship in Elizabethan and Jacobean Culture




    FACT The publication of Jonson's collected volume of Works has rightly come to be regarded as a momentous event as it seems to signal the emergence of the new and distinctively modern idea of the author.

  • Other playwrights saw print as the medium to which their true compositions and hence claims of authorship could be an-nounced. In the 1623 quarto of The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster adds an anxious mar-ginal note next to the italic text of a song sung by the church-men in act three: "The Author dis-claimes this Ditty to be his". In 1608, Thomas Heywood insists in his epistle "To the Reader" in his Rape of Lu-crece that it has not been "my custome . . . to commit my plaies to the presse"; nonetheless, on account of the copies that have "accidently come into the Print-ers handes" in "corrupt and mangled" form, "This therefore I was the willinger to furnish out in his natiue habit". For these playwrights the printed form of their plays restores and pre-serves their original composi-tion.

    It must be asserted though that these playwrights were an ex-ception to the rule. Printed plays were generally considered among the "riffe-raffes" and "baggage books" that Mr Tho-mas Bodley, the founder of the Bodlian Library at Oxford Uni-

    versity, would not allow in his li-brary lest some "scandal" attach to him and his library by their presence. Bodley reasoned, "Hap-pely some plaies

    may be worthy the keeping: but hardly one in fortie," adding that the plays of other nations were written "by men of great fame, for wisedome & learning, which is seldom or neuer seene among vs."

    Publishers did not rush to pub-lish new plays, largely because there was not a large and reli-able market for them. Between 1590 and 1615, on average only about ten were published a year.

    This is the cast of The Pasadena Shakespeare Company

    In 1604, in fear that his work would be pirated, John Marston hesitantly published his comedy, "The Mal-content", and summarized the Elizabethan attitude toward publication when he wrote, "Only one thing afflicts me, to think that scenes, invented merely to be spoken, should be enforcively published to read."

    Few men and no women of Elizabethan England had

    the hubris to seek en-thronement besides Homer,

    Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Dante, and Petrarch.

    Notoriously, Ben Jonson la-bored to rescue his plays from constant revisions, seeking to make available for readers a play text of which he could be said in some exact sense to be its "author." The 1600 quarto of Every Man Out Of His Humor asserted on the title page that it presents the play "As It Was First Composed by the Author B. I. Containing more than hath been Publickely Spoken or Acted." Here Jonson asserts the authority of the literary text over the theatrical script, revers-ing the tendency to offer the play to a reading audience, in the familiar formula, "as it hath bene sundry times playd," as the 1600 quarto of Henry V has it. Even more remarkable is the 1605 quarto of Sejanus, to which Jonson contributes a preface in which he again an-nounces that the printed text is "not the same with that which was acted on the publike stage." In this case Jonson re-moved and rewritten the work of a collaborator. While admit-ting that 'A second pen had a good share" in what was played, in the printed text Jon-son replaces the work of his un-named co-author with his own words. This revision asserted Jonsons importance on the claims of authorship as well as highlighting his value of publi-cation.

  • Plays were published essen-tially because they could be, the stationers did not feel they were doing any great cultural service or preserving their heri-tage. In a commercial envi-ronment where publishing was largely opportunistic, plays were for a publisher a rela-tively inexpensive investment. They allowed a publisher the chance to make some money without great financial expo-sure. There is no surviving re-cords of any payment for a play. It can be assumed though that it would of been similar to that which the printer John Danter is imagined offering an author in the Second Part of

    the Return From Parnassus. "40 shillings and an odde bottle of wine" for a manuscript, which equates to the purchase price of a small book, maybe $15 today. The play text would usually be printed in small pica type on nine sheets of the cheapest available paper. For an edition of 800 a publisher could break even with the sale of about 500 copies and might then begin to turn a modest profit, which would average about a pound a year - -certainly not a spectacular windfall but not an insubstan-tial contribution to the financial health of the stationer's busi-ness.

    This next slide is the title page from the published Duchess of Malfi. You can see the promi-nence given to the writer. The authenticity of this printed ver-sion is backed up by the asso-ciation it has to the Blackfriars private performance and the Globe Theatre public perform-ances.

    It is within this culturally con-structed environment that Shakespeare is writing his fa-mous plays. Shakespeare was a Stratford glove makers son who cared enough for his name and reputation to pur-chase a coat of arms and the right to sign himself William Shakespeare, gent. This same individual was a prolific writer who received occasional praise for Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. It therefore seems strange that this man made scarcely any apparent effort to see his own name in print as the author of those great dramatic texts later as-cribed to him. Shakespeare, in contrast to Webster, Heywood and Jonson, rarely asserted any authorship over his scripts or expressed any anxiety about their printed form. His plays were subjected to theat-r ical revisions by various hands, allowing different com-panies to play successfully within the alloted time, but never did Shakespeare feel obliged to rescue his plays from this constant evolution.

    Shakespeare wrote without knowing that

    he would become Shakespeare.

  • To finish I want to draw your attention to Alexander Popes poetic lines about the great writer William Shakespeare. Popes lines were no doubt in-strumental in reinforcing the opinion, soon to be frozen into dogma, that Shakespeare

    cared only for that form of publication the stage which promised an immediate payoff, while being indifferent to the one that eventually guaranteed his immortality the printed page.

    Less than half of his dramatic production ever appeared in print while he was alive, and of the plays that were published none were marked by any effort on his part to insure that the printed play accurately reflected what he had written. There is one case how-ever with which we can see the pride that Shakespeare took in the authorship of his po-etry, but perhaps not his plays. In 1599 and then again in 1612, the London stationer, William Jaggard, printed The Passionate Pilgrim, By W. Shakespeare each time augment-ing the first-edition of Shakespeare poems with verse borrowed from others. Thomas Heywood reports in his Apology for Actors that the Author Shakespeare was much offended with Mr. Jaggard who (altogether unknowne to him) presumed to make so bold with his name. Jaggard was obliged to reprint a new title page for the unsold cop-ies, omitting Shakespeare's name from the publication. In their epistle "to the great Vari-ety of Readers" in the 1623 folio, Heminge and Condell tell the would-be purchasers of the volume that the collection contains Shakespeare's plays exactly "as he conceiued the[m].

    Ben Jonson penned two poems for the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623. The first was called "To the Reader" and discusses the engraving of Shakespeare. The other was about Sh