Click here to skip to content

Publishing Drama in Early Modern Europe

The 1998 Panizzi Lectures

The annual Panizzi Lectures in bibliography were established by the British Library in 1984 as the result of a generous benefaction. A wide range of distinguished British and foreign scholars have lectured on many aspects of the Library's collections as well as on subjects related to the theory and practice of bibliography and librarianship. All the lecture series have been published by the British Library and are available in the bookshop.

This year's Panizzi Lectures will be given by Dr Roger Chartier of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales on 'Publishing Drama in Early Modern Europe'. The lectures will examine the relationship between plays in performance and plays in print and the often tortuous transmission of texts from the theatre to the printing house in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The books on display here illustrate some of the themes of the lectures: a Shakespeare 'bad quarto' and one of Lope de Vega's 'partes', exemplifying the hazards of memorial reconstruction and pirated editions, Molière's George Dandin in performance and print (the subject of the second lecture) and contemporary texts on punctuation, spelling and systems of shorthand which show the growing contemporary awareness of the differences between spoken and written language, an awareness which was itself heightened by the diffusion of printing.

 'George Dandin'

Molière's prose comedy 'George Dandin' was first performed in 1668 as part of a spectacular festival organised at Versailles in July 1668 to mark the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. The three acts of the play, telling the story of a wealthy peasant who has married above his station and through his attempts to prove his wife's infidelity ends up as an object of ridicule, were separated by lavish 'entr'actes' with classical nymphs and deities in song and dance, strikingly removed from the comic realism of the play itself although contrived to reflect its themes and blend seamlessly with the dramatic action. Molière himself played the title role. The festivities continued after the play with a banquet, a ball and a firework display, all depicted in a series of engravings by the artist Le Pautre; the scene displayed here shows one of the mythological episodes being performed in the theatre specially built for the occasion. The small, plainly printed and unillustrated first edition of the play, shorn of its festive interpolations, which was published in Paris in 1669, forms a complete contrast to the account of the previous summer's celebrations. It is prefaced by a stern reminder of the rights held by Molière as the author of the work. By the mid-eighteenth century Molière was an acknowledged classic of French literature, as the celebrated 1734 edition of his works demonstrates. Finely printed and elegantly illustrated by leading artists of the day, it was also editorially scrupulous. It includes the texts of the original 'intermèdes' for 'George Dandin' as well as a general description of the 1668 festival in an appendix to the play: "Les monumens de la magnificence de Louis XIV, en tous les genres, méritent d'être transmis à la postérité".

Relation de la Feste de Versailles. Du 18 Juillet mil six cens soixante-huit.
(Paris: l'Imprimerie Royale, 1669)
562*.g.25 (2)

George Dandin, ou Le Mary Confondu. Comédie. Par I.B.P. de Molière.
(Paris: Ribou, 1669)
C.57.aa.7

Oeuvres de Molière. Nouvelle édition.
(Paris: [Prault], 1734)
84.k.16

 Memorial reconstruction

The Tragedie of King Richard the third

From W. Shakespeare, The Tragedie of King Richard the third [...], London, 1598. C.34.k.47. Copyright © The British Library Board

The theory of memorial reconstruction - publication based on a scribal transcript of the lines as remembered by the actors who had taken part in the original performances of a play - as an explanation for many of the textual discrepancies and oddities found in the 'bad' quartos of Shakespeare's plays is now widely if not unanimously accepted by scholars. The characteristic features of memorial reconstruction - including omission, repetition, anticipation and substitution - are particularly frequent in the 1597 quarto of Richard III (the second quarto, published in the following year and textually dependent on the first, is displayed here) and can be seen in the lines of Elizabeth's lament on the death of her husband Edward IV (Act 2 Scene 2): "Why growe the branches now the root is withered? / Why wither not the leaves, the sap being gone?" 'Withered' anticipates 'wither' in the actor's memory but the Folio text (shown here) has 'gone', which has itself been misplaced in the quarto version to the end of the second line where the Folio reads 'that want their sap'.

It is well known that Shakespeare appears to have been indifferent to the publication of his plays; other dramatists of the time were outraged by the faultily remembered versions which found their way into print. Thomas Heywood claims in his preface that despite his reluctance he has been forced to publish a correct edition of his 'Rape of Lucrece' , since "some of my plaies have ... accidentally come into the Printers handes, and therefore so corrupt and mangled, (coppied onely by the eare) that I have been as unable to know them, as ashamde to calenge them".

The Tragedie of King Richard the third [...] By William Shakespeare.
(London: printed by Thomas Creede for Andrew Wise, 1598)
C.34.k.47

The Rape of Lucrece [...] Written by Thomas Heywood.
(London: printed for I.B. [i.e. John Busby], 1609)
C.104.cc.1

 Lope de Vega

Unlike Shakespeare, his Spanish contemporary Lope de Vega fought a long campaign throughout his career against the numerous pirated editions of his plays. This 1617 collection of plays ('Novena parte') was the first he succeeded in publishing under his own supervision: the addition to the title declares: " sacadas de sus originales por el mismo". In the preface to the 'Trezena Parte' of his plays three years later (1620), Lope makes it clear that the memorial reconstruction of dramatic texts did not depend solely on actors trying to recall their lines: "...to this must be added the stealing of comedias by those whom the vulgar call, the one Memorilla, and the other Gran Memoria, who, with the few verses that they learn, mingle an infinity of their own barbarous lines, whereby they earn a living, selling them to the villages and to distant theatrical managers...". He goes on to warn credulous readers against believing that "there is any one in the world who can note down a comedia from memory, on seeing it represented..." (H.G. Rennert, The Spanish Stage in the Time of Lope de Vega (1909), p.175).

Doze Comedias de Lope de Vega ... Novena parte.
(Madrid: Alonso Martin de Balboa, 1617)
11726.k.14

Trezena Parte de Las Comedias de Lope de Vega Carpio
(Madrid: 1620)
11726.k.20

 Reforming the written language

The particular problems of transferring a play from the oral medium of the theatre to the printed page only served to underline the general lack of standard grammatical and lexical forms in the written language. It is unsurprising therefore that the sixteenth century was an age of proposals for linguistic reform in England and on the continent. The two English books here present new schemes of phonetically based spelling to resolve the discrepancies between the way English words are pronounced and how they are written, in the hope that "the law of Reason which is in us [ought] to turn our handes to order justly those figures and letters which we shal make, to represent the voyces of our pronounciation". Dolet's book concentrates on making the system of punctuation and diacritics uniform in French; its 'envoi' urges the French to treat their own tongue with the same respect they give to classical languages.

An Orthographie, conteyning the due order and reason, howe to write or paint thimage of mannes voice ... Composed by I[ohn] H[art].
(London: William Seres, 1569)
C.57.a.35

Bullokars Booke at large, for the Amendment of Orthographie for English speech... [By William Bullokar]
(London: Henry Denham, 1580)
C.40.e.4

La Forme et la Maniere de la Ponctuation, & accents de la langue françoise ... [by Étienne Dolet]
(Paris: Guillaume Thibaut, 1556)
1074.a.9 (3)

 Shorthand or 'secret writing'

Actors' professional memories were not the only source for the memorial reconstruction of plays; systems of shorthand or stenography were also devised at this time which allowed a rapid transcription to be written down on the spot. John Willis does not mention the drama in his list of the occasions on which shorthand transcription could come in useful - "Sermons, Orations, Mootes, Reportes, Disputations, and the like" - but that it was used in the playhouses - and not very skilfully - is clear from Thomas Heywood's complaint in a verse prologue that one of his plays had been pirated because among the audience were "some [who] by Stenography drew /The plot: put it in print: (scarce one word trew)".

The Art of Stenographie... [by John Willis]
(London: for Cuthbert Burbie, 1602)
C.58.bb.20

An Abreuation of Writing by Character ... by Edmond Willis
(London: George Purslow, 1618)
C.57.a.35

Contact