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Shakespeare Quarterly 56.1 (2005) 1-32

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The Popularity of Playbooks Revisited

The Popularity of English Renaissance Printed Plays declined dramatically in 1997. For most of the twentieth century, scholars had asserted that plays were a successful portion of the book trade, yielding a predictable profit for publishers. Ronald B. McKerrow, for example, saw plays as "popular books of which a ready sale was expected"; H. S. Bennett thought that plays "made for quick sale" because "in the first decade of the seventeenth century over one hundred editions were printed"; and Leo Kirschbaum likewise believed they made for a "good sale . . . that would give profit to publisher and bookseller."1 Since 1997, however, Shakespeareans have tended to argue a position just the opposite of this received wisdom. Printed plays, it is now maintained, were "risky business ventures" in which publishers, who "in most cases had little or nothing to gain from playbooks," were "understandably reluctant" to invest.2 "In the early-seventeenth century expectations to make a profit with a newly published playbook would have been particularly low."3 Playbooks "were in limited demand," and "very few of them were so popular as to justify editions after the first."4 Recognizing the "precarious economics of [End Page 1] play publication," publishers "hardly bothered with them" at all, because "readers generally seem to have preferred other kinds of books."5 In previous articles, we ourselves claimed that "play publication was a decidedly risky enterprise," as shown by "the low rates of success for printed plays."6

This shift in scholarly thinking can be dated to Peter W. M. Blayney's landmark article, "The Publication of Playbooks," cited by all of the authors quoted above.7 It is rare that a single essay transforms a field so immediately and so thoroughly, and we want to stress here that Blayney's piece concerns much more than the popularity (or lack thereof) of early modern playbooks. His overriding aim is to provide a new history of the conditions of book production in early modern England, focusing especially on "the neglected subject of publication" in order to explain in detail all that "had to happen both before and after a playbook was actually printed."8 In the process, Blayney challenges what he calls Alfred W. Pollard's "stirring melodrama" of the fight between acting companies and those "pirate" stationers who wanted to publish plays without the players' consent.9 Pollard believed that he "could distinguish two different kinds of 'irregularity' in the [Stationers'] registers"—plays that were never entered in the registers and plays that were published by someone other than the stationer who first entered them—and that such "irregular" entries distinguished "bad" quartos from "good."10 From this foundation, Pollard went on to construct his "melodrama in which Good players, with occasional help from Good stationers, struggled against a few Bad stationers and usually won."11 Blayney's analysis demonstrates that these perceived "irregularities" were not so irregular after all and cannot be taken as evidence of "some kind of skullduggery": lack of entrance "is never sufficient reason for suspecting anything furtive, dishonest, or illegal."12 [End Page 2] Through his detailed investigation of the workings of the Stationers' Company and the processes of prepublication allowance, license, and entrance in the Register, Blayney finally puts to rest the narrative of piracy that has maintained such a hold on the imagination of twentieth-century Shakespeareans. By keeping the focus firmly on stationers and their decisions about printing, publishing, marketing, wholesaling, and retailing books, Blayney reveals the anachronisms of the piracy myth and offers the most persuasive account to date of early modern publication.

Now that critics need no longer search for fictional pirates, thanks to Blayney and such scholars as Paul Werstine, Laurie E. Maguire, and Roslyn L. Knutson, and now that Blayney has himself provided the necessary historical background for a proper assessment of popularity in the book trade, we want to focus here on the component of his argument that has probably been the most influential with...


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