Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

Printers' and Publishers' Addresses in English Dramatic Texts, 1558-1642

Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

Printers' and Publishers' Addresses in English Dramatic Texts, 1558-1642

Article excerpt

Standing among a proliferation of London book shops, English readers in the early seventeenth century would have regularly encountered prefatory material of varying extent in texts. "Hundreds of prefaces," Wendy Wall writes, "were designed to perform the arduous task of explaining and justifying printed texts"(173). Dramatic texts also contain such prefatory apparatus as they seek increasingly to resemble other kinds of books. I will focus here on the addresses to readers written by printers and publishers in the period 1558-1642, and I will also include the handful of epistles dedicatory. Although scholars have paid limited attention to prefatory material written by the playwrights, little has been written about printers and publishers as writers of prefaces. I will argue that these people, the ones most intimately involved in production, extended the life and expanded the circulation of play texts not only through the printing but also by addressing readers.

Such prefatory material exists as a textual event, known only to readers. These paratexts, to borrow Gerard Genette's term, provide a point of hospitable entry into the dramatic text, forming a zone not only of transition but also of transaction and allowing us to hear the writers voice directly in the first person. Printers and publishers can thus serve as gatekeepers to the text, protecting and directing an approach to the text. They produce a material object, what several of the printers in these paratexts refer to as "commodity." This word cuts in at least two directions. First, the term refers to commercial activity and the product that will be for sale. But, second, "commodity" can mean the "benefit" that one derives from the text, as when the printer Richard Jones in the Kenilworth edition refers to "thy pleasure and commodide" (Greg 3: 1196). Commodity thus aptly captures the twin purposes of book production: commerce and art. Printers and publishers make clear such purposes in their addresses in dramatic texts.

These addresses differ from those of playwrights primarily by emphasizing the text as a physical object and the processes that have led to publication, including collecting, editing, preserving, and rescuing forgotten texts. The printers' paratexts provide information about negotiations with the author, underscore an editorial function, offer guidance for the text, exhibit aesthetic judgment, make links to performance of the plays, and even on occasion provide literary criticism. The editorial function may include the larger agenda of rescuing plays from oblivion decades after they were written. Therefore, the image of a silent printer, proverbially drunk, dutifully going about his somewhat uninspiring duties needs displacing by a picture of printers and publishers not only actively involved in the production of texts but also regularly participating in the presentation and interpretation of texts--another sign of the collaborative enterprise that printed dramatic texts became. (1) In constructing commodity, printers did not rest with the approbation that plays may have received in performance.

Douglas Bruster, who emphasizes theaters commercial nature, refers

   to the beginnings (i.e. prologues, inductions, and preface
   epistles) and endings (epilogues) of plays [as] forming the
   traditional loci in which to stress their commodity functions as
   well as the contractual relationship between authors, players, and
   audience. (8)

True, but this fails to distinguish between the "beginnings" spoken on the stage and the other forms that exist only in print for readers, who should be included in Bruster's concept of "audience." Kathleen McLuskie and Felicity Dunsworth have argued:

   By the turn of the seventeenth century, playwrights seemed to
   accept that their patrons were the paying audience in the theater
   and replaced the rhetoric of morality with one that ... assumed a
   freedom of consumer choice. … 
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