Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Printed Playbooks, Performance, and the 1580s Lag

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Printed Playbooks, Performance, and the 1580s Lag

Article excerpt

OUR VIEW OF 1580s DRAMA is framed by the plays that have survived, and we usually have print to thank for them. For almost as long as printing presses have been in England, in fact, there have been printed playbooks. As early as the 1480s, readers could buy editions of Terence with an English translation between their lines of Latin, and editions of the first properly English plays followed not long after the turn of the sixteenth century. Around 1515, Wynkyn de Worde published Hycke Scorner, and, around fifteen years later, he invested in two other titles, Temperance and Humility and The Interlude of Youth. (1) At about the same time, John Rastell also put some money behind drama, issuing Henry Medwall's Fulgens and Lucrece. Rastell then went on to publish four additional playbooks; his son William ultimately issued a total of seven. And Richard Pynson brought us Everyman around 1518 and again around 1527. It would be wrong to say that drama in any way dominated the book trade--either in the early sixteenth or seventeenth centuries--but this origin story can serve to remind that playbooks had been available to readers of print for sixty years by the mid-1570s. Although the numbers were not what they would become in the 1590s, new plays and new editions of plays were becoming available for reading with regularity throughout the sixteenth century, and they emerged from a number of London's top publishers and booksellers. Indeed, I do not think it can be controversial to state that the printed playbook preceded London's theater industry (even if David Kathman is right to locate its origins as early as the late 1530s). It could be better remembered, though. When playbooks came to deliver drama written for London's playhouses, they were not acting as mere surrogates for performance: although the manuscripts that found their way to stationers may have been designed for the stage, their transformation into printed pages placed them firmly into an established market for drama, one with its own independent history. In the sixteenth century, for almost as long as there were people reading vernacular literature in print, there were people reading plays. Print and performance were simultaneously independent and interconnected.

To begin, the longer history of print is critical when it comes to the story of English drama as literature--as a form to be read and valued as writing--but it should also be front and center for scholars of performance. As contributions to this issue demonstrate, a range of manuscript records provides us with information about playhouses and companies as well as a number of play titles, but when it comes to 1580s plays themselves, printed editions supply most of our complete (or nearly complete) texts. Where manuscripts do provide unique witnesses, we find two school plays, two entertainments, a Scottish masque, and three Latin plays from the universities. None is a play written for a commercial company in the 1580s. (2) As Andy Kesson warns, what survives "provides only a partial and a distorted witness to the play worlds created on stage, and we therefore need to treat the texts we have with proper caution." (3) And Holger Syme reminds us, in particular, that survival in print may not tell us all that much about stage popularity. (4) But, of course, the playtexts that survive are the only playtexts available for us to read and engage with closely, and we have thus had little choice but to rely on them when developing accounts of the period. No matter how many caveats we offer, the fact is that our 1580s takes a shape that may or may not accurately represent what was happening on the ground. What we do know is that our 1580s is for the most part the one that England's book trade has given us: if a play from the London theater survives, it survives because a publisher ushered it into print.

The most straightforward consequence of our dependence on print publication is that we have only a small number of the plays that were written in the 1580s and first performed by London companies during that decade. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.