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Shakespeare and the Book Trade by Lukas Erne (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 557-559 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0044

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Early in Shakespeare and the Book Trade Lukas Erne quotes a reviewer regarding a “quiet revolution” in Shakespeare studies. This revolution was said to involve a shift, in critical focus, from performance studies to textual culture. Any such revolution must have been capped (though he does not say so himself) by Erne’s paradigm-shifting Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (2003). There Erne demonstrated that, far from being indifferent to the literary dimensions of his plays, Shakespeare likely wrote with readers as well as audience members in mind. The current study will doubtless be read as a companion volume, a bookend of sorts that positions Shakespeare meaningfully in relation to print (Book Trade) and text (Literary Dramatist) as well as to stage. Yet Book Trade stands remarkably well on its own, and suggests that, ten years after Literary Dramatist, the “quiet revolution” in Shakespeare studies can be best understood not in relation to stage and page (however much these have been affected by it) but to methodology.

If there has been a revolution in Shakespeare studies, that is, it is the same revolution that has affected the humanities generally. The advent of desktop computing has given us online access to page images of early books; data storage, sorting, and analysis; and the ability to generate useful illustrations. Put bluntly, this has changed the way we define evidence about the past. Gone is the “representative anecdote” of new historicism (the plural of anecdote, as the saying goes, is not data). In its place are lists, tables, graphs, charts, and numbers. Were playbooks valuable to publishers? Were Shakespeare’s titles more popular than Jonson’s? Where did Shakespeare’s works rank, in the print marketplace, relative to those of his contemporaries? If for a century the culture of bibliographical scholarship has left the answer to such questions in the hands of archival scholars, that somewhat monkish privilege has been reformed by the personal computer. Because books, more than performance, lend themselves to the domain of statistics, the advent of these new tools has allowed discourse in book history to bloom. The quiet revolution in Shakespeare studies therefore lies not in what many scholars champion, but in how they define, gather, and weigh evidence.

The core of the book comes in a modest description of Shakespeare’s possible relation to print. Because it fairly encapsulates the argument, I will let Erne tell it in his own words:

Shakespeare was profoundly invested in the world of the theatre as actor, in-house playwright and shareholder, but recognized that the printing press offered an additional outlet for his plays that was compatible with his corporate theatrical interests and gave him desirable visibility as a dramatic poet and author. He anticipated a readership for his plays, and, being in an economically privileged position as company (and later playhouse) shareholder, he could afford to write longer play texts than he knew would be performed, in the knowledge that the full texts would be published and read. His quarto playbooks contributed to the genre’s rise of social status and started being read, annotated, commonplaced, collected and catalogued in his own time. He witnessed and was not indifferent towards his rise to popularity in the book trade, which clearly exceeded that of other dramatists, as he must have noticed. He had no desire for a display of possessive authorship à la Jonson and happily entrusted the publication and paratextual makeup of his playbooks to the stationers, but he had enough of a “bibliographic ego” to intervene when, as on the title page of The Passionate Pilgrim, his name was taken in vain.


Erne himself is as careful a scholar as you are likely to encounter, the Mr. Keyes of the field. (The reference here is to the dogged claims adjuster of Double Indemnity). In supporting the narrative quoted above he draws on numbers—how many of X, how many of Y, and when—to demonstrate the near certainty that Shakespeare recognized the value of his plays in print, and facilitated their appearance there. Part of this argument involves aggregating the available evidence concerning which Shakespeare works were printed, when, and by whom; as well as what can be determined...

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