graphic Shakespeare and the Book

The Creation of Dramatic Authorship

Playwrights were rather shadowy creatures in late sixteenth-century England. They had no legal rights to the scripts they sold for £5 to £8 to professional playing companies, scripts that the companies could then adapt however they wanted. Nor did authors have legal rights to any plays that booksellers and printers might publish. Stationers typically paid about £2 for a manuscript play, albeit to the person who sold it to them, who might well have been someone other than the author.

Printed plays during this period, moreover, were essentially subliterary, short ephemeral publications from the rowdy playhouses in London's suburbs. In 1612, for example, Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, instructed his librarian to exclude plays from the library, calling them "riffe raffes" and "baggage bookes" and lumping them together with almanacs, proclamations, and other "idle bookes." Bodley reasoned, "Happely 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."

Today early modern plays are regarded as some of the greatest works of English literature, written by some of its greatest authors. To understand how this change in the status of plays came about-how they moved from cheap pamphlets to great literature-it is necessary to turn to the book trade. If we attend to how plays were sold during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that is, if we trace how the books that contained printed plays changed over this period, we can see a gradual rise in the status of plays and the simultaneous emergence of dramatic authors. Dramatic authorship, a category that we now take for granted, was in fact produced in the book trade during the seventeenth-century, as publishers went from marketing plays as unauthored collaborative pieces to selling them as the works of single individuals.

One place that we can see the rising status of plays and authors is on the title pages of plays. Title pages were the primary means of advertising books in the early modern period, designed by publishers to inform customers of a book's contents, and, more importantly, to entice them to buy it. To that end, extra copies of title pages would be printed for hanging in booksellers' shops and around London. As Ben Jonson complained in the preliminaries to his 1616 Workes, he wanted his booksellers to let his folio modestly "lie upon thy stall till it be sought" rather than aggressively publicize it with the "title leaf on posts or walls, / Or in cleft-sticks, advanced to make calls," lines that say as much about how books were sold as they do about Jonson's view of his folio in the marketplace of print.

The following sections explore some of the different ways in which authors were constructed in the early modern book trade. The first surveys author attributions on play title pages, and the second discusses the use of authorial portraits on frontispieces and title pages. The final sections look at authorial dedications and then at the consternation some authors expressed after their plays were altered in the theater and in the print shop.

For a more thorough investigation of how publishers sold plays during this period, see Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser, "Vile Arts: The Marketing of English Printed Drama, 1512-1660," Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 39 (2000), pp. 77-165.

Images: Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Technology: Columbia Center for New Media Teaching & Learning