Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Market for Playbooks and the Development of the Reading Public

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Market for Playbooks and the Development of the Reading Public

Article excerpt

ELIZABETHAN STATIONERS WHO PRINTED AND SOLD PLAYS were creating a reading public, and the physical properties of early playbooks can tell us a good deal about how that public came into being. The appearance of title pages and of paratextual materials developed from conscious, and changing, decisions by stationers about how a play should look in print if it was going to sell in the marketplace. As the numbers of printed plays increased, the appearance of playbooks changed. And the changes happened fast. Only as the number of plays in print increased could a reading public for plays begin to develop. That public developed in controversy made visible in the bookshop.

Printing plays of the professional theater doesn't begin on a substantial scale until 1590. Only ten plays appear in first editions from the beginning of printing through 1589, fifty-three in the next decade, ninety-five between 1600 and 1609. (1) Richard Jones, printing Marlowe's Tamburlaine in 1590, tells his "gentlemen readers" that he is omitting "some fond and frivolous gestures" that will be "tedious to the wise," though "they have been of some vain conceited fondlings greatly gaped at" when the play was performed. (2) In an epistle conspicuous to a browser, Jones tries to sell Tamburlaine by telling its readers that they are superior to theatergoers. Similarly, John Fletcher's dedicatory epistle to The Faithful Shepherdess (published without a date by Bonian and Walley, probably in 1609) offers a rather testy explanation of what he means by "pastoral." Fletcher begins, "If you be not reasonably assurde of your knowledge in this kinde of Poeme, lay downe the booke or read this, which I could wish had bene the prologue." Only the sophisticated need pursue the reading of this play. The theatrical audience, Fletcher says, was too dimwitted to realize that his shepherds were "the owners of flockes, and not hyrelings." (3) Thus, the audience expected "whitsun ales ... and morris-dances," and condemned The Faithful Shepherdess for their absence. Fletcher patronizes the theatrical audience for a failure of knowledge that amounts to a failure of manners. They are simply not our kind of people, and catching up with our worldliness is their own problem. The prefatory poems in the quarto printing similarly express distaste for the theatrical audience.

Stationer Walter Burre's epistle preceding Francis Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613) promotes the play precisely because it failed in the theater. Burre pursues the same strategy Fletcher did in The Faithful Shepherdess: by admiring--and purchasing--this play, the book buyer defines him or herself as superior in taste to those who disliked the play in the theater. A conflict in taste among members of the audience is of course the subject and running joke of Beaumont's play. If Burre's epistle is to be believed, foregrounding in the theater the divisions of taste among the theater audience did not succeed in drawing an audience when Pestle was first performed, but by 1613 it seems a winning marketing plan for a playbook.

These examples, drawn from the beginning and end of the years on which I focus, show a pattern familiar to us of marketing goods by implying that their ownership is a sign of status. Segmenting their market, printers and booksellers directed particular plays at particular niches. Doing so, they anticipated a strategy familiar in our own time to anyone who shops for cars or whiskey or magazine subscriptions. Marketers sell goods by appealing to a customer's desire for affiliation with one set of peers and distinction from others. Though owners of Buicks and Audis may have the same income, they don't want to be perceived as like one another, and this desire to assert difference helps sell both brands of cars. At the same time, the segmentation of the market implies that taste is a matter for debate and that all members of an audience do not have an equal ability, or an equal right, to perceive or control the meaning of a text. …

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