The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 30.103 Sunday, 10 March 2019
Date: March 10, 2019 at 9:07:34 AM EDT
Subject: From TLS - 'Delectable and pithy'
Delectable, pithy and elegant
How play scripts sold themselves
READING DRAMA IN TUDOR ENGLAND
240pp. Routledge. £115.
Reading Drama in Tudor England is a “wondrous necessary” book. Here Tamara Atkin shows how sixteenth-century booksellers marketed drama in print: looking at title pages, colophons, doubling charts (which set out which roles could be performed by the same actor), authorship attributions (names, initials, or anonymity) and reprints, Dr Atkin argues that these booksellers were thinking about how to shape their customers’ reading experiences of drama from the start. Doubling charts, for example, given prominence on plays’ title pages, were not provided to facilitate performance for amateurs (always a limited market), but to reinforce the sense of the work in question as a play. This conclusion runs counter to recent studies that promote the idea of the “literary dramatist” – an idea that would seem to keep any hint of theatricality at a distance.
Atkin’s book is full of such bracing observations, and her comparative readings consistently enable fresh ways of thinking. She compares the title pages of plays to those of other genres, showing how printers could make sense of drama by linking it to other recognized categories – hence the title-page formulation “in manner of”. She scrutinizes adjectives on title pages, too. “Fruitful” occurs seventy-five times on the title pages of Tudor devotional works but only twice on dramatic title pages; these two particular plays are by the clergymen Lewis Wager and William Wager, where “fruitful” piously suggests that “time reading this book is time well spent”.
Hybrid terms like “tragical comedy”, meanwhile, are signs of inventiveness rather than Polonian pedanticism. Adjectives advertising forms of mirth – delectable, pleasant, witty, pithy, excellent – rarely appear on non-dramatic title pages. Even so, they only appear on dramatic title pages after 1570, where their brand of comedy replaces the “fruitful” morality. These descriptors, Atkin concludes, reflect stationers’ attempts to convey the idiosyncratic experience of a new comic genre. (One of the stimulating by-products of Atkin’s textual inquiry is the new light it sheds on the development of generic categories.)
This approach raises questions in turn about current assumptions and scholarly practices. Atkin queries the academic habit of presenting play dates by year of composition or performance (often conjectured), observing that this privileges the play qua play rather than as printed artefact. (Plays in print frequently post-date performance by several years.) We have become so fixated with authorship or performance as a legitimizing category that we underplay the ways in which drama before 1576 locates authority elsewhere: in the author’s status (“chaplain to . . .”) or in an appeal to a coterie such as the Inns of Court. Authority derived from performance comes later, with the publication of a second edition of Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville’s Gorboduc (1570), and is a “radical new way of marketing playbooks”.
[ . . . ]
Atkin reasonably ends her study at 1576, the year that the Theatre opened in Shoreditch. Nonetheless, one frequently finds oneself offering adjunct material of a later date. An anthropomorphized description of a text as violated female is acknowledged as unusual in 1565; but it becomes a standard trope in prefatory materials of the public playhouse period, and the nascent vocabulary could be plotted across the pre- and post-playhouse divide. This is not to complain but to acknowledge the necessity of studying the continuum rather than making a bifurcation between early sixteenth century and later sixteenth century. This book’s purpose is to question such a bifurcation; and it shows our need for more scholars working, as Tamara Atkin does, across the awkward literary phases of the sixteenth century.