The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0009 Monday, 7 January 2008
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.
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