Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Ben Jonson's Head

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Ben Jonson's Head

Article excerpt

I'M TRYING TO IMAGINE what it might mean to buy a book "at the Ben Johnson's Head in Thredneedle-street" in 1656. I stumble upon this shop sign in reading a list of plays available in print--a list published at the end of The Old Law, a play attributed on its title page to Middleton, Rowley, and Massinger. Advertised as "An Exact and perfect CATALOGUE of all the PLAIES that were ever printed; together, with all the Authors names; and what are Comedies, Histories, and Interludes, Masks, Pastorels, Tragedies,"(1) and running to sixteen pages and 622 titles, this list groups plays alphabetically by title and includes a column noting the genre of each play--comedy, tragedy, interlude, masque--by abbreviation (C, T, I, M), and a column that sometimes attributes authorship. "All these Plaies," the catalogue promises, "you may either have at the Signe of the Adam and Eve, in Little Britain; or, at the Ben Johnson's Head in Thredneedle-street, over against the Exchange."(2) The Jonson's Head was the sign for Robert Pollard's shop from 1655 until at least 1658;(3) a later list, published in 1661 by Francis Kirkman, advertises as one of its locations for the buying and selling of plays "the John Fletchers Head."(4) I want to ask what it means to place a playwright's head on a shop sign--to sell under its sign, or to read it, in an advertisement or in the street. What kind of sign do these head signs represent?

Part of an answer lies in the formatting of the play catalogues themselves. As they emerge in the 1650s, '60s, and '70s, the catalogues seem to me to trace the rising (though still tentative) importance of authorship as a visible category for organizing printed drama. To the extent that they engage authorship (and they do so to different degrees), the catalogues seem not as interested in consistency with even the other available printed attributions as they are in promoting a growing interest in plays associated with recognizable names.(5)

The first extant list, published with The Careless Sheperdes in 1656, is organized to facilitate locating plays alphabetically by title, with occasional authorial identifications following in italics. There is no separate column for authors.(6) The Old Law catalogue likewise lists plays alphabetically by title, with a column for genre, and then a column with more frequent notation of authorship in italics.(7) A 1661 list--Francis Kirkman's initial effort, published in an old interlude--places an author column first ("Names of the Authors"), but continues to arrange/group the plays alphabetically by title ("Names of the Playes").(8) In the layout of Kirkman's page, authorship is thus marked more prominently than in the earlier catalogues, but title remains the organizing principle. Kirkman's second list, published with a translation of Corneille's Nicomede in 1671, uses the same column arrangement, but in its "Advertisement to the Reader," the publisher bestows great attention on what he calls "the placing of names," which system he presents as an innovation.(9) Kirkman explains that in the 1671 catalogue he has grouped the plays of the most prolific playwrights together at the beginning of each letter in the alphabetical list of titles:

   Although I took care and pains in my last Catalogue to place the Names in
   some methodical manner, yet I have now proceeded further in a better
   method, having thus placed them. First, I begin with Shakespear, who hath
   in all written forty eight. Then Beaumont and Fletcher fifty two, Johnson
   fifty, Shirley thirty eight, Heywood twenty five, Middleton and Rowley
   twenty seven, Massenger sixteen, Chapman seventeen, Brome seventeen, and
   D'Avenant fourteen; so that these ten have written in all, 304. The rest
   have every one written under ten in number, and therefore I pass them as
   they were in the old Catalogue.(10)

Kirkman's system is a significant innovation in the emergence of the dramatic author as a category: at the moment of an emergent bibliophilic culture interested in the collection of printed drama,(11) he becomes absorbed in discovering/producing authors who have a discernible, definable corpus--writers whose plays can be grouped. …

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