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Shakespeare in print

By the time Shakespeare began creating his plays, the London book trade was well established and growing steadily. Printing was regulated by the ecclesiastical authorities and the Stationers’ Company, although the regulations were not always enforced. The printers, booksellers, and publishers who ran London ’s book trade were almost all stationers.

Printed plays formed a very small part of the book trade. Relatively few plays got into print. They did not sell in large numbers, and were not particularly profitable. The companies of players were not necessarily reluctant to have their plays printed, but the uncertainty of profits may well have deterred publishers. The dramatists themselves were unlikely to make money from the printing of their plays. There was no law of copyright to protect their interests. Once a manuscript play had been sold to a publisher, and he had paid for its approval and licensing for printing, he had sole rights over the work.

Several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Richard II and Richard III, were popular enough to be printed in several editions. From 1598, with Love’s Labour’s Lost, his name began to be added to their title-pages as a selling point. Scholars have long held that Shakespeare had no interest in the printing of his plays, but this is now being challenged.

 
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