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The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0061 Sunday, 7 February 2010
Date: February 4, 2010 7:33:57 PM EST
Subject: Staying Entries
The issue of "staying entries" obtruded on the "Shakespeare's Intentions" thread, so I have been giving it further thought -- here are my conclusions.
There was no copyright in Shakespeare's day. But a publisher who was a member of the Stationers' Company could (by payment of a fee) enter a text in that company's Register and obtain the exclusive right to publish it (and any other text with a title which suggested that it was the same work!) This was effectively a publisher's right, and other publishers could only publish the work by arrangement with the 'owner' of the entry. There were also "staying entries" (a work "to be stayed") which seem to have been provisional entries, offering the same exclusivity, preventing other publishers printing the work, but not committing the publisher to publishing the text, or to paying the full fee. Again, this was to the benefit of the publisher, but there is some evidence that it could be done at the instance of a playing company (e.g. from references in Henslowe's Diary, and by several of Shakespeare's plays being entered together and "stayed".)
The purpose of staying entries has been much debated. The traditional argument is that Shakespeare's playing company were anxious to counter 'piracy' and these were blocking entries, preventing 'unauthorised' publication. But the absence of copyright meant that the playing companies had no economic interest in the publication of their plays. The London playing companies enjoyed exclusivity in the "acting right" for their own plays -- so it made no difference in that respect whether they were published or not. Peter Blayney has suggested that publication was actually in the interests of the playing companies, because it gave valuable publicity to both the companies and the plays -- they would have actively encouraged publication.
I would like to suggest that the companies had an interest in selling manuscript playtexts to publishers: the demand for printed plays would have meant that publishers would have been willing to buy manuscript playtexts. Perhaps not offering as much as the company had had to pay the original author, but every little helped, and the absence of copyright meant that it was in the company's interests to sell a text before an "unauthorised" manuscript found its way to a publisher. I would suggest that a staying entry represented an option to purchase a manuscript from a playing company. This would have had the advantage to the playing company of preventing any other party selling the playtext while they were negotiating the sale. The stationer making the entry could be buying time to get a publication project off the ground (e.g. raising finance, or doing what passed for market research), or acting as an agent for the playing company in attempting to sell on the project, all parties being protected in the meantime.
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