Shakespeare Quarterly 56.1 (2005) 33-50
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The Alleged Popularity of Playbooks
Peter W. M. Blayney
In "The Popularity of Playbooks Revisited," Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser take so many opportunities to praise my essay "The Publication of Playbooks" (hereafter simply "Publication") that I regret being unable to return the compliment as often.1 Their arguments, however, have failed to convince me that I was mistaken about "the relative unpopularity of playbooks" (18). One of my aims in "Publication" was to make literary historians take a new and more critical look at some tired old assumptions—rarely challenged but often groundless—about the place of plays in the early modern book trade: how and why they came to be published; how keenly (or otherwise) they were sought by publishers; how quickly (or otherwise) retail customers snapped them up in the bookshops. At the end of their paper Farmer and Lesser (hereafter "the authors") declare that "this reevaluation must continue" (29). I therefore hope they will accept that this critique is a necessary step in that process.
In their opening paragraph the authors present three quotations from what I think of as the bad old days. For contrast, in the next paragraph they quote several recent studies influenced by "Publication"—two of which suggest that some scholars are rejecting the old myths so forcefully that they risk overbalancing in the opposite direction. Of the plays first published in 1583–1642, I wrote that fewer than 21 percent were reprinted within nine years and fewer than 41 percent within twenty-five.2 Those numbers do not quite support the claim that "very few of them were so popular as to justify editions after the first."3 And while the wording is certainly based on my own, I would neither make nor endorse the assertion that publishers "hardly bothered with them."4 But overstatements of that kind can be countered without going so far as to argue that printed plays were really much more popular than their mere numbers suggest. In attempting to argue just that, the authors have gone astray in several ways: historically, logically, and mathematically. [End Page 33]
Among the sections into which their paper is divided, the one I consider the most useful contribution is "The Creation of the Market for Printed Professional Drama" (6–13). Here the authors discuss the rise and fall from year to year of the production of printed playbooks from 1576 through 1660, in essence turning their figure 1 into a narrative in six parts. The results are certainly interesting, although it needs to be said that the summary description of one period is misleading and the placement of some of the dividing lines perhaps arbitrary. The precipitous zigzags from peaks to valleys and back in Period 2 hardly illustrate what most people would understand by "sustained high production" (7, emphasis added), while the "gradual contraction" of Period 3 (1614–28) might more logically be seen as beginning in 1606 with the drop from the peak of 1605. But even if others might choose to tell the story with different emphases, studying the facts closely enough to discern any story at all is a welcome innovation.
The statistics in "Publication" covered only the sixty years before the closure of the playhouses (1583–1642) and later reprints of plays first printed in those years. In this paper I shall stay within those limits. I count only plays in English written for public performance, but my figures differ slightly from the authors' because I include several university plays whose printed form suggests that they were aimed at the same readership as plays from the professional stage. Those differences between our statistics seem to me small enough to be negligible. As the authors note, the nature of my task in "Publication" led me to focus more on first editions than on reprints, and to consider the publishing of plays rather than playbooks. I therefore treated each play in a collected volume as a separate entity. Except where otherwise specified, I have here followed the authors in counting...