Playbills, Prologues, and Playbooks: Selling Shakespeare Adaptations, 1678-82

Article excerpt

THE YEARS 1678 to 1682 witnessed two related, yet seemingly unrelated, events: the monarchy faced its greatest threat since the 1640s, and William Shakespeare's plays underwent the most sustained period of alteration in his authorial afterlife. (1) Having all but vanished from the print and performance market by the late 1660s, the plays made a forceful return in the late 1670s and early 1680s. Ten Shakespeare alterations appeared on stage, and nine in print between 1678 and 1682, at a time when Charles II was at loggerheads with parliament over its right to meet, and its attempts to bar his Catholic brother from the succession. In fact, versions of Shakespeare's plays--many of which had yet to appear on the restored English stage--made up almost one fifth of all new plays mounted during these four theatrical seasons. (2) The altering playwrights built on Shakespeare's plots and characters in order to produce topical, political plays that reflected contemporary concerns and disputes. It would therefore appear that the Exclusion Crisis, a succession dispute that threatened to return the country to a state of civil war, helped to generate a market for rewritten versions of Shakespeare's plays. (3)

By exploring Shakespeare's position in the performance and print market for the twenty-two years after Charles's Restoration, this paper argues for the importance of the Exclusion Crisis as the watershed moment in Shakespeare's afterlife. I take the reopening of the theaters and the establishment of the two patent theater companies, the King's Company and the Duke's Company, in 1660, as my starting point, ending with the former's financial demise and the creation of the United Company in 1682.1 intend to make three associated claims. The first is that Shakespeare was less of a name and presence in the years preceding the Crisis (1660-77) than is usually recognized, with the number of alterations and revivals of his plays in decline from the late 1660s, and few new print editions appearing on the market. My second claim is that the material conditions ushered in during the Crisis--such as theatrical recession, harsh stage censorship, and a demand for plays offering direct engagement with contemporary politics--helped to generate a market for Shakespeare redactions, with playwrights and theater managers (re)turning to the practice of alteration in large numbers. During the Crisis versions of Shakespeare's plays were not only staged on an unprecedented scale, but also sold to theater patrons as products of his labor. The promotion of Shakespeare found in stage prologues offers stark contrast with his treatment in the printed playbooks, (4) where his name was no longer used to sell altered versions of his plays. I examine the ways in which Exclusion Crisis alterations of Shakespeare were (often disingenuously) marketed in playbills, prologues, and playbooks. I will suggest that playwrights and theater managers deployed shrewd, media-sensitive marketing strategies that likely revolutionized Restoration London's awareness of a (by then long-dead) playwright named Shakespeare. By tracing a play's journey from playbill to stage prologue to printed playbook, one gains insight both into Shakespeare's perceived salability and the ways in which late seventeenth-century plays could be advertised for performance and print.

My essay thus approaches the topic of "Shakespeare for Sale" by considering the extent to which Shakespeare's name was used to sell plays, as well as the occasions when his plays, or versions of his plays, were and were not deemed vendible between 1660 and 1682. Scholars of Shakespeare's authorial afterlife have tended to survey lengthy time spans, generally concurring that the eighteenth century witnessed the most significant moment in Shakespeare's journey towards canonization. (5) I believe that focusing on shorter periods of history allows us to observe more immediate changes in the ways in which "Shakespeare"--by which I mean both the brand name and the product, to put it anachronistically--was sold. …