- Paratexts in English Printed Drama to 1642 ed. by Thomas L. Berger and Sonia Massai
Navigating the world of Renaissance publication can be a tricky business. As the often febrile disputations over whether Hamlet’s flesh was too solid or too sullied testify, the mutable world of the early modern printing press can throw up issues seemingly small in size but substantive in nature. Therefore, any attempt to catalog the erratic corpus of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century publications can be fraught with difficulty. Archival work is tremendously time consuming, and while online databases such as Early English Books Online (EEBO), Database of Early English Playbooks (DEEP), and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s extensive collection of digitized images have empowered scholars to access important material speedily, those who produce concordances and other similar cataloguing texts are to be commended, most especially for their bravery in engaging with such an idiosyncratic body of literature.
The two-volume Paratexts in English Drama to 1642, as the title suggests, follows a similar vein. It endeavors to produce a readily accessible reference work of all material appended to early modern dramatic texts up to the start of the English Civil War. According to its editors Thomas L. Berger and Sonia Masai, “paratextual materials . . . represent a substantial, yet largely untapped, repository of information about all aspects of the production, reception and transmission of dramatic literature in the period” (1:xi). As such, addenda like prefaces, frontispieces, and marginalia retain a special interest for scholars of the Renaissance English drama, containing a whole host of nuggets of information that can further illumine our understanding of this extraordinary period in theatrical history. “Especially prominent,” observe the editors, “are references to the changing status of dramatic authorship, to the impact of censorship, to theatrical trends and styles associated with different theatrical venues, and to the popularity of individual plays on the stage and to early modern readers” (1:xi). Considering the potential of such avenues of scholarly investigation, the overall aim of this project—to collate and catalog the paratextual material of the period’s dramaturgy—is an admirable one.
There are, however, a number of problems with the catalog that hinder its usefulness as a reference book. Not the least of these is the layout. The two volumes are, the editors admit, indebted to Walter W. Greg’s foundational study A Bibliography of the English Printed Drama to the Restoration, published from [End Page 357] 1939 to 1959. Berger and Masai utilize Greg’s ordering system for their own catalog, listing entries following the earlier Bibliography’s chronology. Thus, for example, John Skelton’s satirical morality play Magnificence, which was written circa 1525, is listed as “Greg 11, Magnificence, John Skelton,” (1:11), meaning that the primary frame of location is the play’s position in Greg’s catalog. A more useful ordering system for a reference work of this kind would undoubtedly be a relatively strict temporal chronology, as adopted for instance in Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson’s excellent ongoing series British Drama, 1533–1566: A Catalogue. Instead, the editors, in subscribing to a large extent to Greg’s own ordering system, render an important aspect of the plays catalogued, namely the publication date, to (literally) a footnote at the bottom of each page.
A secondary though related problem is the font used for each entry. The above example, for instance, has the title as well as the paratextual material in bold typeface. This means that it is difficult to distinguish new entries when scanning the page. Such homogeneity can make discerning the many texts catalogued overly difficult. Renaissance texts, by their very nature, come with a degree of abstruse bibliographical and typographical quirks. However, clarity for a twenty-first-century audience (alongside fidelity to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authorship) must always be paramount.
Nonetheless, there are a number of very valuable editorial additions to the works collated. Among these are the appendices to the second volume, titled “Finding List.” Here, each entry...