The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.156  Friday, 28 March 2014


From:        Gerald E. Downs <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         March 27, 2014 at 11:53:46 PM EDT

Subject:    Lukas Erne's Book Trade


Lukas Erne’s Shakespeare and the Book Trade is the sequel to Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (2003). Its first sentence reestablishes his premise: “Shakespeare was a man of the theatre who wrote plays for the stage, but he was also a dramatist and poet who wanted to be read and who witnessed his rise as print-published author” (1). Even though most of Erne’s book argues that Shakespeare’s printed plays were more popular than had been thought, he seems to want the reader to conclude that Shakespeare was involved (beyond authorship) in the publication process itself.


Erne repeats and builds on the logical presumption that a playwright aware of the publication of many of his plays during his active years, even if their printing is unauthorized and imperfect, knows that his future work will also be printed; therefore, he is in some way writing for publication. Erne minimizes the apparent fact that once his narrative poems were printed, Shakespeare had no part in the publishing ventures. Has any other author been described as a witness to his rise? Does passivity convey the idea that an author wants to be read? What is behind these claims?


Shakespeare’s participation validates assumptions (for which there is little evidence) that have been under attack for some time. Virtually all textual investigators approach the problems without squarely confronting them. And yet Shakespeare scholarship is factionalized over the question of “foul papers and promptbook” printer’s copy. Most twentieth-century scholars took it for granite (if not marble) that authorized texts stand behind the Shakespeare quartos and folios. But skeptics (led by Paul Werstine’s example) question the assumption, voicing a probability that they reached print after getting clear of authorial control.


The reason for the skepticism is obvious: the plays were corrupted with no sign of authorial concern to set them right. Traditionalist heirs of Greg, Pollard, and Wilson (everyone, almost) still cling to notions that theatrical features in the texts come from the promptbooks used by “Shakespeare and his Fellows” and that most any other irregularities can be attributed to Shakespeare’s rough drafts. The circularity of the tradition is apparent when it confronts corruption head-on. For that reason the “bad quartos” were long ago relieved of official duty when their mysteries were consigned to actors familiar with the plays, whose “memorial reconstructions” were what got to print. When that solution faltered and questions persisted about other texts, loyalty oaths (to Sh & his F’s) began to lose influence: “Shakespeare revised Q1 Lear (printed from his inexplicable rough draft) to produce a new promptbook that became (with Q2) copy for F; do you believe it?” All together: Not altogether.


Even Honigmann gave up on that one. But as late as 2010 he kept Shakespeare in control, in spite of all ills (such as the death of his mother-in-law !?): “Shakespeare’s patience and passiveness from 1594 to 1609, when one or more piracies of his work appeared almost every year, seem extraordinary. Equally extraordinary, I think, is the fact that in the next seven years (from 1610 to his death) he managed to put a stop to all new piracies. And, let us be clear . . .” (“How Happy was Shakespeare . . .?” MLR, 105 #4).


The equation (10 piracies = nothing) does seem extraordinary. But how do we know that Shakespeare himself stopped the bad quartos? None of this is very clear. Perhaps Honigmann has forgotten that the buccaneers had done Shakespeare a favor (according to Erne, 2003) by initiating his rise as a published playwright. If Erne fills in the blanks in his new book we may learn that Shakespeare was not only happy with his new books, but that he cooperated in their publication: that is, foul papers and promptbooks are back in business. That’s what Book Trade is about: authorized v. unauthorized texts. The popularity of printed playtexts is more or less a vehicle for defending the tradition that Shakespeare remains close to his extant texts, either by blessing the sale of playbooks altered under his guidance, or by seeing his rough drafts off to the printers to fulfill his literary ambitions.


To be fair, Erne asserts that his “study as a whole . . . stresses the importance of publishers, and it does so in the context of an author, Shakespeare, whom I see as complicit with – albeit not directly involved in – his dissemination by the book trade” (19). But how might an author be “complicit” yet not involved in publishing his own works? You won’t find an answer here; you won’t find the question. Nevertheless, it’s good to learn of Erne’s agreement with the opinion that Shakespeare left publication to questionable agents; the tenor of Book Trade elsewhere encourages readers to believe Shakespeare was involved.


Some who retain access to Book Trade may find it a handy reference for information on the publications themselves. Some of Erne’s topics are important but as with Dramatist, they never seem to get off the ground. His early book promised to figure out the bad quartos; that didn’t happen and the sequel barely mentions them. Isn’t their very existence a key “book trade” component? Was the author complicit in their publication? And what can be said of the publishers?


Erne misses opportunities to set the stage properly. For example, in describing the role of Andrew Wise as an early publisher he discusses Thomas Playfere’s 1596 preface to a Wise-published sermon, where the preacher complained that Wise had published the sermon earlier, “‘mangled’ and unbeknownst to him.” After the Stationers’ Company got involved, Playfere and Wise came to some agreement that led to the cleric’s authorization of a reprint. Erne suggests that Playfere’s response to the stolen text, “in whom the fault resteth I cannot learn certainly,” implies the preacher “may well have believed” Wise’s protestation of innocence. And Erne quotes Sonia Massai, who thinks that Playfere’s denial of his earlier authorization “seems disingenuous” (Shakespeare and the Rise of the Editor). He’s right to disagree with Massai, but what do we learn of Wise?


Playfere’s sermon can only have been procured by stenography (with many others). As the three 1595 editions of this example show, sermons were marketable; and why not? Everyone had to go to church and someone had to preach, which from an inferred protocol was accomplished without full texts; the legitimate man of God needn’t read his sermon—he was inspired. In reality, the Godly might not look a gift-horse in the choppers if an inspired sermon came his way. Victims of piracy were embarrassed by implications of money-grubbing and by faulty texts (extempore exhortations aren’t too smooth in any case); yet their only recourse was to authorize corrected reprints through the same publishers on the grounds that sermons were good things, even in print and stolen or not. So the stigma didn’t last and sermons became a staple of the print industry. Nevertheless, Andrew Wise fenced stolen goods; that ought to be emphasized.


Erne posits that “Wise had ‘a long-standing working relation’” with no author except Shakespeare and that the “conclusion that Wise and Roberts repeatedly did business with Shakespeare or his company is hard to resist” (163). Further, “Wise’s special interest in Shakespeare may be inferred” from Massai’s argument that he “invested . . . ‘in the perfection of his dramatic copies for the press . . . [S]ubstantive variants . . . in the second and third quartos of Richard II, Richard III and I Henry IV suggest that they were corrected as they were repeatedly reprinted between 1598 and 1602’” (164; Massai, 95, 102).


Arden2 Editor Peter Ure observes of Q2 Richard 2: “Pollard has shown that the second Quarto was set up from the first: it repeats most of the errors of Q1, and, on Pollard’s count, introduced a hundred and twenty-three new ones.” That sounds like one of my investments. Further, Ure thinks “it is no longer possible to overlook the evidence for memorial elements in the Quarto” (first suggested by Cairncross). Of course, memorial contamination is overlooked like there’s no tomorrow, but what do these remarks tell us about Andrew Wise’s relation to Shakespeare? There wasn’t one.


Erne repeats a strange claim from Dramatist when alluding to Cuthbert Burby’s editions of R&J and LLL as conforming “to the publication pattern of the plays Shakespeare wrote for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men” (166). These editions were much corrupted by bad quartos serving as copy-texts and, despite the wishful thinking, it is unlikely that their manuscript copy-texts were authorized; they seem to have had problems of their own. Further, as I recall, Erne uses the bad quarto category to establish the “pattern” by serendipitous thieving. These kinds of evidence tell us there was no publication pattern at all. Can we really believe an author who wanted to be read could leave publication to such haphazard ways? Can Shakespeare, of all ‘witnesses,’ have been so carelessly ‘complicit’ over the decades?


Asserting that Shakespeare and publishers were chummy—against all the textual evidence—Erne adds a non sequitur: “If the publishers’ interest in . . . Shakespeare’s plays . . . seems to us surprising, then this has much to do with [entrenched] scholarly views . . . . One is that which reduces Shakespeare to a ‘man of the theatre . . .” (184).


To me, publisher interest is not surprising; why should it be? One dramatist stood above all others and wannabe publishers knew it as well as you. Over time they got hold of some plays in various states of corruption and did what they could with them. If the texts’ quality is diminished that’s not to say they don’t shine. But the kinds and amount of transmission error preclude any lasting proposition that their author willingly supplied the publishers. Whether Shakespeare meant to publish and whether he helped to publish the extant playtexts are simply two different questions. Granted, the fact that no text exists in a form we would expect from the great dramatist is not easy to explain; but the evidence we have won’t explain his desires to publish—unless he had none.


Gerald E. Downs


Subscribe to Our Feeds


Make a Donation

Consider making a donation to support SHAKSPER.