graphic Shakespeare and the Book

Publishers, Printers, and the Printed Book
Commendatory Verses

Shakespeare, First Folio, To the memory of my beloud, the AVTHOR 
  by Ben: Ionson (2 pages)

The closest equivalent to today's "blurbs" on book dust jackets was in the early seventeenth-century commendatory verses, poems in praise of an author and his work. Commendatory verses began appearing with some regularity in the preliminaries of plays in the 1630s, a period in which publishers generally started printing in plays a wider range of prefatory material.

Ben Jonson penned two poems for the Shakespeare First Folio (1623), one, "To the Reader," discusses the engraving of Shakespeare, and the other Shakespeare himself, "To the memory of my beloued, the AVTHOR MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: AND what he hath left vs." In this second poem, Jonson calls Shakespeare the "Soule of the Age!," "the wonder of our Stage!," placing him ahead of Chaucer, Spenser, Beaumont, Lyly, Kyd, and Marlowe in the English literary pantheon. Shakespeare even compares favorably with the playwrights of Greece and Rome, for he "was not of an age, but for all time!"

Jonson also returns to the theme he introduces in "To the Reader," namely that this book is Shakespeare's funereal "Moniment":

Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe,
And art aliue still, while thy Booke doth liue,
And we have wits to read, and praise to giue.

In Jonson's view, the Folio has incredible power. It forestalls Shakespeare's death-so long as its readers "have wits to read, and praise to giue"-plus it helps "the drooping Stage," "Which, since thy flight fro[m] hence, hath mourn'd like night, / And despaires day." In effect, Jonson argues, the "light" of the Shakespeare Folio raises both its author and the theater, not bad for a book, according to Heminge and Condell's dedication, of "trifles."

Massinger, Roman Actor (1629): sig. A4r

Six commendatory verses precede Philip Massinger's The Roman Actor (1629), the last by Joseph Taylor, the actor who played the role of Paris. Taylor begins by explaining the purpose of commendatory verses-to make people buy the book:

If that my Lines being plac'd before thy Booke
Could make it sell, or alter but a looke
Of some sowre Censurer, who's apt to say
No one in these Times can produce a Play
Worthy his reading . . . .

He adds, moreover, that in the current book trade, "'tis true / The old [i.e. old plays] accepted are more then the new." And in 1629, Taylor was by and large correct. From 1625 to 1628, only one new play from the commercial stage was published, A Game at Chess, and that four years earlier in 1625. But, if any play could overcome this obstacle, Taylor writes, it should be this tragedy, Massinger's "best" work: "Thou hast made many good, but this thy best."

Davenant, The Just Italian (1630): sigs. A3r, A3v, A4r

When a play failed on stage, writers of commendatory verses sometimes tried to turn that failure to the printed play's advantage, a move the authors of two poems on William Davenant's The Just Italian (1630) understandably attempted. The first poem, by William Hopkins, says that the play was liked by the "wiser few," but not by the "giddy fooles" who seek out the "noyse" of public spectacles-bear-baitings at "Paris-garden," "the new Motion, the fine Puppet playes," ballad singers who "make a din about the streets," and "the Iewes-trumpe, or the morris bells." Calling Davenant's play a "legitimate poem," Hopkins lauds it by raising it above other forms of public entertainment-a distinction not everyone made-and, in so doing, he implicitly identifies the play's readers as the "wiser few," those who do not chase after noisy public spectacles.

Thomas Carew likewise blames the play's failure on the tastes of "the weake Spectator," but he offers a highly politicized interpretation of these spectators. He writes that "Now noyse preuayles" and that the crowds who disliked this play "throng / To that adulterate stage" at the Red Bull, while the Cockpit lies with its "Benches bare" as its actors perform "The tearser Beaumonts or great Iohnsons verse." But the players are not the only ones to have been affected by the choices of these "men in crowded heapes"; the State too has felt their "rancour": "men great and good, / Haue by the Rabble beeene misunderstood." Carew here links the "Rabble" who celebrated the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham in August 1628 to the audiences who disliked Davenant's play, a fascinating, if rather extreme, explanation for the play's failure. Eleven years later, this commendatory verse was reprinted in Carew's Poems.

Nabbes, Microcosmos (1637): sig. A3r

Many commendatory verses were penned by playwrights for others' plays. Richard Brome wrote one for Thomas Nabbes's Microcosmos in 1637, a time when the theaters were closed because of a raging plague epidemic. After first extolling Nabbes, Brome ends with a lament as much about Nabbes as about himself: "And friend I hope the stage agen will shine, / In part for mine owne sake as well as thine."

Brome, The Antipodes (1640): sig. A3r

By 1638 the theaters had re-opened, and Brome's The Antipodes was performed. When it was published two years later, it featured a commendatory poem by one "C. G.," who praises Brome as the literary descendant of Jonson. "Ionson's alive," it proclaims, for "He soujournes in his Brome's Antipodes." Brome was once Jonson's servant (the Induction to Bartholomew Fair refers to him as such), and Jonson actually contributed a poem to Brome's The Northern Lass (1632), "To my old Faithfull Seruant . . . M. RICH. BROME," which begins, "I Had you for a Seruant, once, Dick Brome; / And you perform'd a Seruants faithful parts." C. G. also tries to capitalize on Brome's relationship with Jonson, connecting the two authors as a way to signal the literary merit of Brome's play and as a strategy to encourage readers to buy it.

Beaumont and Fletcher Folio (1647): sig. E1r

The preliminaries to the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio (1647) do more than compare the volume's authors to Jonson; they print a poem by Jonson himself. In fact, this folio contains the most impressive compilation of commendatory verses (forty-two pages worth) of any early modern book of plays. On the page reproduced here, we see poems by Richard Corbet and Ben Jonson, which have been reprinted from when Beaumont was "newly dead" and "then living," as well as one by Robert Herrick, which praises "Master Fletchers Incomparable Playes." Unfortunately for Herrick, and for his readers, the plays he mentions were not included in the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio.

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