The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0004 Thursday, 3 January 2008
From: Zachary Lesser <
Date: Thursday, 3 Jan 2008 13:25:30 -0500
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.)
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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