- Renaissance Drama and the Politics of Publication: Readings in the English Book Trade
Too many studies of early dramatic publication have been driven by the urge to undo the publisher's labor, to recover the manuscript with which the publisher began. In this model, the scholar and the publisher work at cross purposes: as the book moves away from the author and toward the reader, the scholar thrashes like [End Page 272] a salmon back toward the moment of origin. More recent scholars, less preoccupied with authorship, have attended closely to the production of the printed book itself. Now Zachary Lesser has written a book that reverses the old polarity completely, studying publication not to learn what preceded it but what followed. For Lesser, early English publishers are expert, albeit speculative, informants on a work's contemporary reception.
Early English publishers are for Lesser not witnesses to authors' intentions, with which the booksellers were at best tangentially interested, but to book buyers' tastes, which the London stationers observed intently. Lesser argues, compellingly, that the economics of the book trade promoted specialization by publishers and that success demanded an intimate grasp of a book's discursive meanings. An investor, Lesser writes, "had to understand the text's position within all the relevant discourses, institutions, and practices, in order to speculate on the meanings his imagined customers might make of it" (36). While such speculations are predictions and not histories, Lesser argues that the successful speculators, those best at divining what their particular customers would buy, improved over the course of long careers from the "complex 'feedback loop' between publishers and purchasers" (18). The marketer reveals the shape, at least in rough outline, of the market.
Lesser provides wonderfully nuanced studies of four Jacobean and Caroline publishers who invested in plays: Walter Burre, Nicholas Vavasour, Thomas Archer, and Thomas Walkley. Except in the case of Burre, Lesser considers these men's dramatic offerings chiefly in the context of their non-dramatic publications, seeking the political and cultural preoccupations upon which each man customarily traded. The politics Lesser unearths are far too complicated and historically bound for easy generalizations, and the book's real pleasures lie in these readings.
Lesser considers The Knight of the Burning Pestle as part of Walter Burre's strategy of publishing plays which had failed theatrically, or which Burre might promote as failures, "construct[ing] . . . a 'high' culture of drama . . . forged from a distinction with other plays" (71). Thomas Archer's trade in plays about unruly women, most notably The White Devil and The Roaring Girl, is construed as part of his specialty in the debate over women's proper roles, the querelle des femmes. Archer is Lesser's prime example of what he calls "dialogic publishing," a specialization in publishing both sides of a contemporary debate; Archer invested in polemics countering his earlier polemics, maintaining public interest in his inventory.
Lesser's approach is most startling in the chapters on Vavasour's Jew of Malta and Walklely's Othello, plays read strictly within the political contexts of their publication. The Jew of Malta becomes, in Lesser's hands, not a play about the 1590s but about the 1630s, a "Laudian drama" fearful of religious pluralism within England. Othello, Philaster, and A King and No King, published by a specialist in Parliamentary affairs, become plays about matters before Parliament, not least James I's foreign policy and Parliament's proper relationship to the king. These are no longer Marlowe's, Shakespeare's, or Fletcher's plays. Lesser's concern is instead with the meanings Walkley and Vavasour created by giving the plays new contexts, [End Page 273] so much so that he claims the Othello quarto "means something quite different from the version published the following year as part of the First Folio, even apart from any variations between the two texts" (208). The plays are historicized in a profound way, but no longer with the author...