2. Printed plays

Printed plays formed a very small part of the London book trade. Recent estimates suggest that, between the early 1580s and 1642, printing in general rose from about 300 to about 600 items each year. Over the same period, the number of plays printed rose from about five to about eight each year. There was little money to be made from plays, which were considered to be ephemera. Publishers could only make a profit if a play went into two or more editions. Although plays could not compete with poetry, and certainly could not rival the sales of religious texts and works of popular piety, some did manage multiple editions. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, first printed in 1592, went through seven editions within 25 years.

For many years, scholars believed that acting companies were reluctant to have their plays printed. Among the reasons given were that the companies would lose their exclusive acting rights over their plays, and that access to printed texts would turn audiences away from performances. Recent research suggests that these theories were incorrect, and that economic factors were more significant. Plays may have been offered to publishers, rather than publishers seeking them out, because there was so little certainty of profit. Some printers did not print plays at all, for example the Royal Printer and those commercial printers with puritan sympathies.

The publisher would spend about £2 to purchase the manuscript of a play, and to pay the fees associated with approval by the authorities, and licensing and registration by the Stationers’ Company. Almost no manuscripts of early plays survive, and scholars have been forced to speculate about those used by printers. The evidence provided by printed plays suggests that they could be of several types:

  • Fair copy prepared by the dramatist for the playing company
  • Dramatist’s foul papers
  • Obsolete promptbook
  • Transcript of the fair copy, or the promptbook
  • Copy of the play prepared for a friend or patron
  • Memorial reconstruction by one or more of the actors who took part in performances
  • Text specially prepared, perhaps by the dramatist, for printing.

The relationship between the surviving printed texts, their lost manuscript sources, and what was actually performed on stage has been the subject of much theoretical investigation.

By Shakespeare’s time, there were well-established conventions governing the printing of particular types of texts. These were not invariably applied, but they did affect the format and type size as well as other features of the resulting book. Single plays were usually printed in quarto format, using the smallest of the common sizes of paper. Roman type was used, in the size called pica (equivalent to today’s 12 point). There were also conventions for the layout of stage directions and speech prefixes, although these could (and did) vary. Act and scene divisions were not generally given, and many plays were not paginated.

About 800 copies would be printed for the first edition of a play. For a second edition, between 800 and as many as 1500 copies (if the first edition had sold out quickly) would be printed. The publisher’s profits were much higher with second and subsequent editions, for which he had no costs associated with the purchase, approval, and licensing of the manuscript. Very few plays were sold bound, although they might be put into a paper wrapper before they were stitched. A single, unbound play cost about 6 old pence. After purchase, plays were quite often bound together into collections by their owners.

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