The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1819  Tuesday, 3 September 2002

From:           John Briggs <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Wednesday, 28 Aug 2002 16:49:59 +0100
Subject: 13.1808 Re: Stationer's Register
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1808 Re: Stationer's Register

To R. A. Cantrell:

William Proctor Williams gave the full citation in SHK 13.1785:

Peter Blayney's "The Publication of Playbooks" in _A New History of
Early English Drama_. eds.  John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan.  New
York: Columbia, 1997:  383-422.

This is Blayney's clearest and most comprehensive statement of his
position and the one usually cited.  In the circumstances, "ubiquitous"
is probably justifiable hyperbole.

To Marcus Dahl:

As I seem to have (somehow) caused all this, perhaps I should re-state
Blayney's position and also my own, as I don't fully agree with him.

Blayney examines the period 1583 to 1642.  His overall conclusion on
profitability is that "no more than one play in five would have returned
the publisher's initial investment inside five years.  Not one in twenty
would have paid for itself during its first year".  Entry in the
Stationers' Register was an indication of intent to publish a book (it
was therefore more than an "option", even if the right was transferred
to another stationer) and plays were usually printed within about a year
of entry.  For the two peak periods (1594/5 and 1600/1) Blayney shows
that only 56% were published within about a year and 20% were never
published at all. Blayney's explanation for the two peaks is that the
theatre companies were releasing (or selling to publishers) copies of
play texts for the purpose of publicity and advertising.  The first peak
coincides with the re-opening of the theatres after closure for the
plague, and he provides some evidence that the Lord Chamberlain's Men
precipitated the second peak

My own position is as follows (based, I should hasten to add, on no
evidence whatsoever!)  As Blayney has demonstrated that there was no
economic case for publishing more play texts, I find it hard to believe
that the number of play texts available for printing was restricted by
the playing companies.  I would have thought that there were normally
more titles in manuscript circulation than publishers chose to purchase
for printing.  I would therefore look to the operation of the free
market for an explanation of the two peaks ("boom and bust" is the
phrase that springs to mind).  I would suggest that during the two boom
periods publishers decided (not "randomly") to copy each other and cash
in on a perceived (rather than real) demand for play texts (or tried to
anticipate each other, which I suppose amounts to the same thing).  I am
not happy about the idea of publicity, and am unclear about the role of
acting companies in "releasing" texts.  What was the nature of the
manuscripts actually sold to publishers?  Do we know enough about the
nature of the printer's copy for printed plays?

I can't remember what my original point about history plays was:
probably that if a lot of plays are being published (or registered) we
shouldn't be surprised about the number of history plays.  But it is
worth questioning when histories came to be recognised as a separate
genre.  Francis Meres divides Shakespeare's plays (somewhat awkwardly)
between comedies and tragedies.  At some point, therefore, between 1598
and 1623 histories came to be recognised: does anyone know when that

John Briggs

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