Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 13. Pirates; The Shakespeare Stationers

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVIII. The Book-Trade, 1557–1625

§ 13. Pirates; The Shakespeare Stationers

It would appear that the dramatist was especially exposed to the predatory habits of the piratical publisher. The playhouse authorities, believing that the circulation of a play in print was likely to detract from its financial success on the stage, gave no encouragement to the publishing of plays. But a popular play was sure of finding a ready sale, and a stationer on the look-out for “vendible copy,” if he could obtain an acting copy of a favourite play, or procure a shorthand writer to take notes during its performance, would have little regard to the wishes of either playwright or players.

The printers and publishers of the early Shakespeare quartos belonged almost entirely to the class of unprivileged men, and, though they were otherwise quite unimportant as stationers, their association with the production of the plays makes them an interesting group. Of the thirty-six plays contained in the first folio (1623), sixteen had previously been issued in separate form. The earliest in date is the Titus Andronicus of 1594, which was printed by John Danter for Edward White and Thomas Millington. This Danter, who, three years later, issued the first edition of Romeo and Juliet, was one of the least reputable members of the trade, and was given to the printing of pirated works and scurrilous pamphlets. Millington also published The First Part of the Contention and The True Tragedie of Richard the Third, which appeared in 1594 and 1595 respectively. In 1600, jointly with John Busby, another publisher of plays, he issued the first edition of Henry V; and, on 15 October, 1595, he entered for his copy in the Stationers’ register The Norfolk gent his will and Testament and howe he Commytted the keepinge of his Children to his owne brother whoe delte moste wickedly with them and howe God plagued him for it—a story which has since found a briefer and more poetical title in The Babes in the Wood.

Next comes Andrew Wise, a small stationer in St. Paul’s churchyard, who, in 1597, brought out the first issues of Richard II and Richard III. The first two quartos (1598 and 1599) of 1 Henry IV were also published by him. It was in conjunction with Wise, that William Aspley, another stationer of St. Paul’s churchyard, published the only known quartos of Much Ado about Nothing and 2 Henry IV in 1600. In addition to issuing several plays by Chapman, Dekker and other writers, Aspley was concerned in the publication of both the first and second Shakespeare folios, and his name also appears on some copies of the first edition of the Sonnets. Another Shakespeare publisher was Cuthbert Burby, who, in 1598, first issued Love’s Labour’s Lost. Among other plays which bear his name are John Lyly’s Mother Bombie (1594 and 1598), the anonymous Taming of a Shrew (1594), and The Raigne of King Edward the Third (1596 and 1599). He is also known as the publisher of Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia, which appeared in 1598, and joint publisher of Robert Allot’s England’s Parnassus in 1600.

Among the plays associated with the press of James Roberts, the almanac patentee, are the two issues of the Merchant of Venice dated 1600, the two of A Midsummer Night’s Dream also dated 1600, and the Hamlet of 1602 and 1605. He succeeded John Charlwood as printer of “the players’ bills,” or theatre programmes, an office which passed to William Jaggard in 1615. Among other stationers connected with the plays are John Smethwick, who was one of the four at whose charges the first folio was printed; Thomas Pavier, who published as Shakespeare’s the plays Sir John Oldcastle (1600) and the Yorkshire Tragedy (1608); and Nathaniel Butter, who published the two issues of Lear in 1608, and also Chapman’s Homer, but who is even more interesting as a pioneer of newspaper publishers. He is said to have issued a Courant, or Weekly Newes from Foreign Parts, as early as October, 1621; but his first entry of A Currant of Newes in the registers is dated 7 June, 1622, and this publication must very shortly afterwards have assumed a regular periodical issue, for “Number 24” is entered on 26 March, 1623, and it seems thereafter to have made a habitual weekly appearance.

The first two of Shakespeare’s poems which passed through the press, the Venus and Adonis of 1593 and the Lucrece of 1594, were printed by Richard Field, who was a native of Stratford-on-Avon and may, therefore, it is allowable to suppose, have been personally acquainted with the author.

In 1609, a manuscript of Shakespeare’s Sonnets having fallen into the hands of Thomas Thorpe, a stationer who played the part of a literary agent by the picking up of this kind of floating “copy,” he commissioned George Eld to print them for him, and, having apparently no shop of his own, he employed two other stationers, William Aspley and John Wright, to sell the book for him. One of Thorpe’s earliest successes in this line was the publication in 1600 of Marlowe’s translation of the first book of Lucan, and his subsequent achievements include Healey’s translation of Saint Augustine’s Citie of God (1610), three plays by Chapman and works by Ben Jonson and others.