graphic Shakespeare and the Book

The Playhouse in Printing House
Authors on the Playhouse in Printing House

Brome, The Antipodes (1640): L4v

Early modern plays inevitably existed in several versions before they were ever printed. Some plays were written by authors who were under contract to provide playing companies with a certain number of plays per year. Others were penned by writers who tried to sell their scripts to playing companies on an ad hoc basis. In either case, once playing companies owned an author's manuscript, the play was legally theirs and they could make any changes to it they wanted. The primary goal of the companies was not to preserve the author's intentions, but to stage plays that would attract large audiences.

Stationers obtained plays in manuscript through any number of channels: they bought manuscript playbooks from companies that had gone out of business; they purchased copies of company playbooks, with or without the company's permission or knowledge; they obtained plays directly from authors (some authors therefore were able to sell their plays twice, leading Thomas Heywood to condemn this "double sale of their labours, first to the Stage, and after to the press"); they even bought manuscripts whose provenance they were unsure of and whose authorship was a mystery to them.

Richard Brome recorded the transformations one of his plays went through as it moved through these various channels. On the last page of The Antipodes (1640), he explains to the "Courteous Reader" how his play was originally written for "the Cock-pit Stage," but because of a prior contract with the Queen's Men, it was performed "at Salisbury Court." When the Queen's Men adapted it for Salisbury Court, moreover, the players cut some passages in the play because it was too long, passages that Brome has re-inserted "according to the allowed Original."

Webster, The White Devil, To the Reader (1631): A2r, A2v; 27.3 Webster, The White Devil, final note (1631): M2v

John Webster's The White Devil (1631; originally published in 1612) was not subject to the same theatrical cutting as The Antipodes was, but it too suffered in performance. John Webster, in his address "To the Reader," admits that he wrote the play slowly-"I confesse I doe not write with a goose-quill, winged with two feathers"-but focuses mainly on its failure on stage. When it was performed, the playing conditions were poor "in soe open, and blacke a Theater" (the 1612 edition attributes this to its having been "in so dull a time of Winter"); further, it lacked "a full and vnderstanding Auditory," who instead resembled "those ignorant asses (who visiting Stationers shoppes their vse is not to inquire for good bookes, but new bookes)."

On the last page of The White Devil, Webster adds a final note that exonerates the players for the play's failure, praising the skill of the actors, especially "Master Perkins," Richard Perkins of the Queen's Men, who played Flamineo. This is the first note of its kind in English drama.

At the end of his "To the Reader," Webster changes his tone and praises the "worthy Labours" of other playwrights: George Chapman for his "heightned stile"; Ben Jonson's "labour'd & vnderstanding workes"; the "worthy composures" of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher; and lastly "the right happy, and copious industrie" of Shakespeare, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Heywood.

Ford, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1633): K4r

In 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1633), John Ford adds a note similar to Webster's in The White Devil, but one that focuses on the errors of the printer, not the audience. Ford praises the "generall Commendation deserued by the Actors, in their Presentment of this Tragedy," which, he hopes, "may easily excuse such few faults, as are escaped in the Printing." When plays were printed, not only were purposeful changes made to them of the type Brome discusses, but inadvertent "faults" would turn up in their texts. Ford reasons that assuming his readers know how to spell-a safe assumption for most readers of books-then "a secure confidence assures that hee [an interesting assumption about the sex of his readers-compare it to the comments of Humphrey Moseley in the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio] cannot ignorantly erre in the Application of Sence."

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