Owning William Shakespeare: The King's Men and Their Intellectual Property

Owning William Shakespeare: The King's Men and Their Intellectual Property

Owning William Shakespeare: The King's Men and Their Intellectual Property

Owning William Shakespeare: The King's Men and Their Intellectual Property


Copyright is by no means the only device for asserting ownership of a work. Some writers, including playwrights in the early modern period, did not even view print copyright as the most important of their authorial rights. A rich vein of recent scholarship has examined the interaction between royal monopolies, which have been identified with later notions of intrinsic authorial ownership, and the internal copy registration practices of the English book trades. Yet this dialogue was but one part of a still more complicated conversation in early modern England, James J. Marino argues; other customs and other sets of professional demands were at least as important, most strikingly in the exercise of the performance rights of plays.

In Owning William Shakespeare James Marino explores the actors' system of intellectual property as something fundamentally different from the property regimes exercised by the London printers or the royal monopolists. Focusing on Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, King Lear, and other works, he demonstrates how Shakespeare's acting company asserted ownership of its plays through intense rewriting combined with progressively insistent attribution to Shakespeare. The familiar versions of these plays were created through ongoing revision in the theater, a process that did not necessarily begin with Shakespeare's original manuscript or end when he died. An ascription by the company of any play to "Shakespeare" did not imply that it was following a fixed, authorial text; rather, Marino writes, it indicates an attempt to maintain exclusive control over a set of open-ended, theatrically revised scripts.

Combining theater history, textual studies, and literary theory, Owning William Shakespeare rethinks both the way Shakespeare's plays were created and the way they came to be known as his. It overturns a century of scholarship aimed at re-creating the playwright's lost manuscripts, focusing instead on the way the plays continued to live and grow onstage.


I stand here for him.
   —Henry V, 2.4

Editors and Owners

The tradition of editing Shakespeare is as old as English copyright law, and they enter history together. Until the eighteenth century, printing rights were governed by the rules of London’s guild of booksellers, printers, and binders, the Worshipful Company of Stationers, and members of the company considered their “copy,” their right to republish books that they or their predecessors had published, both exclusive and perpetual. in 1709, as Parliament debated legislation that would set a finite term for exclusive copyrights and vest them in authors rather than in publishers, the bookseller Jacob Tonson devised a strategy to help maintain his perpetual control over the rights to Shakespeare’s plays. Tonson republished the collected plays, identified for the first time as the poet’s Works, including the first biography of Shakespeare and for the first time publicly citing an editor, Nicholas Rowe, who took responsibility for setting the text. As the copyright term of each subsequent edited Works neared expiration, Tonson and his successors would publish new editions, with new editors. After print copyright had become a question of black-letter law rooted in the concept of an author’s personal rights, rather than a collection of industrial rules and customs focused on the rights of Stationers, the publishing industry sought a new category of owner whose legal rights the Stationers could exercise in order to retain control of books whose writers were long dead. the passage of the first English copyright law, the 1710 Act for the Encouragement of Learning, sometimes called the “Statute of Queen Anne,” meant that a publisher such as Tonson could not own Shakespeare’s plays forever, at least not in theory. But surely Rowe owned Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare, and after him, Alexander Pope owned Pope’s edition . . .

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