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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: January ::
Understudies
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0004  Thursday, 3 January 2008

From:		Zachary Lesser <
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Date:		Thursday, 3 Jan 2008 13:25:30 -0500
Subject: Understudies
Comment:	SHK 18.0832  Understudies

Thanks to Gabriel Egan for drawing list-members' attention to "The 
Popularity of Playbooks Revisited," which I co-wrote with Alan Farmer, 
and, more generally, to our argument that playbooks were far more 
popular with stationers and retail customers than recent scholars have 
believed. Since it has yet to be mentioned, I'd like also to draw your 
attention to the rejoinder to Peter Blayney's response that we published 
in the subsequent issue:

"Structures of Popularity in the Early Modern Book Trade," Shakespeare 
Quarterly 56 (2005): 206-213.

Readers, of course, will make up their own minds about the debate, but 
you may not be surprised to learn that, far from seeing Blayney's 
response as a "systematic demolition" of our argument, we saw nothing in 
it that undermined any of our central arguments. Blayney raises numerous 
points, many of which are minor and concern methods of counting that do 
not affect our results; because the sample sizes are so large, his 
demurrers about whether a particular category of items should be 
included do not make any real difference for our purposes.

The debate really comes down to how one assesses the relationship 
between the total number of editions, the market share, and the reprint 
rates for different classes of books (e.g., plays, sermons, treatises, 
travelogues).  We argued that these criteria must be considered in 
dynamic relation to each other-and this is why, far from neglecting to 
mention that about three times as many sermons were published as plays, 
we were (so far as I know) the first to make the comparison at all 
("Popularity of Playbooks Revisted," pp. 21, 27). In his 1997 article, 
Blayney agreed that these different criteria must all be considered: 
"there is more to the question of popularity than the annual number of 
new works in a genre, and we need also to look at the frequency of 
reprinting" ("Publication of Playbooks," p.  387). But now that we have 
shown that playbooks were reprinted at more than twice the rate of the 
market in general (and of sermons), Blayney has changed his mind. He now 
reverts to the position that only a single criterion matters: total 
number of editions, which he thinks "completely vitiates" the usefulness 
of playbook reprint rates as an index of popularity ("Alleged," 43). 
This new position seems to us economically naive. For one thing, 
professional plays could never have been printed in the same numbers as 
sermons, since there simply were nowhere near as many professional plays 
produced at the theaters as there were sermons preached in the pulpits. 
This issue of varying supply between different classes of books provides 
just one reason that total number of editions cannot tell the whole 
story of popularity-though we stressed that it does tell one important 
part of that story. (We believe sermons are also a popular class of 
books; it's not a zero-sum game, as Blayney sometimes implies.)

The take-away point is this: there is only one reasonable explanation 
for the very high reprint rates of playbooks as compared to the overall 
market "benchmark" and to sermons in particular. Customers were eager to 
buy the editions of plays that they found in the bookshops of early 
modern London.  This is why playbooks so frequently sold out and led to 
reprint editions. If this isn't a kind of "popularity," what is? And if 
this wouldn't make plays appealing to stationers, what would?

(Incidentally, the question of whether playbooks were popular with 
stationers and with customers has no necessary relation to the issues of 
piracy and memorial reconstruction; the two questions happen to have 
been brought together in Blayney's original article, but while we differ 
with Blayney over the question of popularity, we agree with him on the 
issue of piracy.)

References:

Peter W. M. Blayney, "The Publication of Playbooks," in A New History of 
Early English Drama, John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan, eds. (New York: 
Columbia UP, 1997), 383-42.

Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser, "The Popularity of Playbooks 
Revisited," Shakespeare Quarterly 56 (2005): 1-32.

Peter W. M. Blayney, "The Alleged Popularity of Playbooks," Shakespeare 
Quarterly 56 (2005): 33-50.

Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser, "Structures of Popularity in the 
Early Modern Book Trade," Shakespeare Quarterly 56 (2005): 206-213.

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