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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: January ::
The Popularity of Playbooks
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0009  Monday, 7 January 2008

From:		Duncan Salkeld <
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Date:		Sunday, 06 Jan 2008 20:05:42 +0000 (GMT)
Subject: 19.0004 The Popularity of Playbooks
Comment:	Re: SHK 19.0004 The Popularity of Playbooks

Zachary Lesser puts his case with characteristic clarity and tact. It 
would certainly be wrong to dismiss naively his and Alan Farmer's 
careful, widely researched and important work. But Blayney's reply to 
their essay makes no concession so far as I can see to any part of their 
argument. Instead, it offers rigorous and detailed critique. Farmer and 
Lesser's subsequent rejoinder is unfortunately too space-constrained to 
respond point by intricate point. The technicalities of this debate are 
forbidding and require quite complex distinctions between 'speculative', 
'monopolistic' and 'patented' books, plus a good grasp of statistical 
averages. What Lesser and Farmer agree in their rejoinder is that the 
devil is in defining what 'the popularity of playbooks' really means. 
They (I think) measure popularity largely by number of reprints 
expressed as percentages; Blayney (I think) measures popularity in terms 
of total numbers of books published and so holds that sermons and 
'godly' literature far outsold playbooks.

I claim absolutely no expertise in this debate, but its central issues 
are of the utmost importance and the stakes are high. Although this 
debate looks like a disagreement about how 'popular' playbooks were in 
the period, at its heart lies a methodological disagreement about the 
criteria by which the question might be resolved. Participants can argue 
over the criteria, but there seem to me to be many other unquantifiable 
factors that cloud the issue. Does 'popularity' mean breadth of social 
approval? If so, statistics indicating a book's total market share or 
number of reprints will only tell a part of the story. Foxe's 'Acts and 
Monuments' ('Book of Martyrs'), printed by John Day in 1563, ran to four 
editions in his lifetime, and a total of seven by 1631. But its 
'popularity' extended far beyond those who bought or even read it: 
precisely how far remains impossible to ascertain.

Tangential admittedly, but just for interest's sake, here's a hitherto 
unpublicised entry in the Records of the Court of Aldermen identifying a 
popular woman writer:

21 August 1604 [fo. 421r]

Item Hester Kellowe wyfe of Bartholomewe Kellowe a / Scottishewoman 
having a verye rare and extraordinarye / gift and skill in wryting is by 
this Court permitted and / tollerated to hang or sett forth anye tables 
wrytings or / other shewes within this Cittye or the libertyes thereof 
for / shewing and declaring of her said skill.

Hester Kellowe was popular with the City magistrates and many unnamed 
others. Just how popular is - regrettably - unknowable.

Duncan Salkeld

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