“We Live in a Printing Age”: Shakespeare and the Print Revolution

  • Adam Max Cohen


Studies of Shakespeare’s relationship to the print revolution usually fall into one of two categories: source scholarship interested in Shakespeare’s reading, and bibliographical study of multiple editions of Shakespeare’s plays.1 Source scholars consider which texts Shakespeare may have owned, borrowed, adapted, or recalled from his school days. Robert S. Miola has referred to scholarly interest in Shakespeare’s reading as “The Dream of Shakespeare’s Library.”2 Bibliographers and textual editors prefer to trace the various forms in which Shakespeare’s works migrated “from the playhouse to the printing house.”3 These scholars consider why some plays appeared in print soon after their stage performances while others did not, why different versions of a play were published and by whom, which edition provides the best glimpse into what the playwright may have intended, and which edition offers the clearest picture of a play’s original stage performance.


Print Technology Title Page Printing Press Sexual Infidelity Marshall McLuhan 
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  1. 1.
    Leah Marcus has recently challenged the notion that Shakespeare’s theater world was a bookish subculture. Marcus points out that playwrights often composed and edited long speeches in their heads before committing them to paper, and players often rehearsed without access to any written material (Leah Marcus, “The Silence of the Archive and the Noise of Cyberspace,” in The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print, ed. Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday [London: Routledge, 2000 ], pp. 18–28 ).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare’s Reading (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 164. Shakespeare’s contemporaries noted his adaptation of classical and contemporary texts, and there are a handful of source studies from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The field expands considerably during the Victorian era. J. P. Collier gathered sources together for a two-volume work entitled Shakespeare’s Library (1843). W. C. Hazlitt added to Collier’s work with the six-volume edition of Shakespeare’s Library (1874–1876), and Israel Gollancz edited a series of reprints called The Shakespeare Library, which ran to ten volumes. In 1904 Henry R. D. Anders summarized research related to Shakespeare’s reading in Shakespeare’s Books. In William Shakespeare’s Small Latine and Lesse Greek (1944) T. W. Baldwin focused on references to Latin school texts, and Virgil Whitaker’s Shakespeare’s Use of Learning (1953) supplemented Baldwin’s work. Today Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957–1975) remains one of the standard works on Shakespeare’s sources.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Douglas Brooks, From Playhouse to Printing House: Drama and Authorship in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); andGoogle Scholar
  4. David Scott Kastan’s chapter “From Playhouse to Printing House; or Making a Good Impression,” in Shakespeare and the Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 14–49. For earlier examplesGoogle Scholar
  5. George Walton Williams, The Craft of Printing and the Publication of Shakespeare’s Works ( Washington, DC: Folger Books, 1985 );Google Scholar
  6. Evelyn May Albright, Dramatic Publication in England, 1580–1640: A Study of Conditions Affecting Content and Form of Drama (1927; repr., New York: D. C. Heath, 1971 ).Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); andGoogle Scholar
  9. Simon Schaffer, “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain,” in Rethinking Social History: English Society 1570–1920 and Its Interpretation, ed. A. Wilson ( Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993 ), p. 129.Google Scholar
  10. 5.
    See Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979 ), p. 401.Google Scholar
  11. Eisenstein learns of this practice from Jean Hoyaux, “Les Moyens d’Existence d’Erasme,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 5 (1944): 7–59.Google Scholar
  12. 7.
    Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 347. For more on the duplicity inherent in mechanical reproduction, seeGoogle Scholar
  13. Patricia Parker, Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 ), p. 133.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    Colin Clair, A History of Printing in Britain ( London: Cassell, 1965 ), p. 131.Google Scholar
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    J. W. Saunders, “Stigma of Print: A Note on the Social Bases of Tudor Poetry,” Essays in Criticism, 1 (1951): 139–164;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. J. W. Saunders, “The Social Situation of Seventeenth-Century Poetry,” in Metaphysical Poetry, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer (London: Edward Arnold, 1970 ), pp. 237–259.Google Scholar
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    Arthur Marotti, Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric ( Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995 ), p. 210.Google Scholar
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    Harold Love, “Manuscript versus Print in the Transmission of English Literature, 1600–1700,” Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand 9 (1985): 96.Google Scholar
  20. 33.
    Historians of technology are fond of debating the precise nature of Gutenberg’s innovation. Gutenberg did not invent printing, as printing with wood blocks existed in China by the eighth century CE. Nor did he invent movable type, as movable wooden blocks were in use in Asia from the eleventh century and cast metal type was used in Korea from 1403. He certainly did not invent the press itself, as winepresses and other types of screwpresses were well known in Europe prior to his lifetime. It seems Gutenberg’s innovation was the use of the screwpress to bring vellum or rag paper into contact with inked, cast metal, movable type. For more on the debate surrounding the nature of Gutenberg’s innovation see James Moran, Printing Presses: History and Development from the Fifteenth Century to Modern Times ( London: Faber and Faber, 1973 ), p. 18.Google Scholar
  21. 34.
    See Sir H. Gilbert, A discourse of a discoverie for a new passage to Cataia (1576), sigs. 1v–2v.Google Scholar
  22. 35.
    George Best, True Discourse of the late voyages of discoverie.... (1578), sig. b3.Google Scholar
  23. 38.
    John Rastell, The Third Booke, Declaring by Example. … that it is time to Beware of M. Jewel (1566), sig. A3.Google Scholar
  24. 44.
    See Allan Stevenson, Observations on Paper as Evidence ( Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1961 ).Google Scholar
  25. 46.
    See Alfred Shorter, Paper Mills and Paper Makers in England 1495–1800 ( Hilversum: Paper Publications Society, 1957 ), p. 3.Google Scholar
  26. 47.
    See Walter Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue ( 1958; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983 ), p. 311.Google Scholar
  27. 58.
    For more on the relationship between outward show and inwardness in Shakespeare’s plays and those of his contemporaries, see Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995 ).Google Scholar
  28. 59.
    See Barbara Mowat, “Prospero’s Book,” Shakespeare Quarterly 52 (2001): 1–33, esp. pp. 4–5. Mowat complicates her argument somewhat by focusing on a printed grimoire, but she insists that the particular grimoire she discusses is the only one of its kind in the sixteenth century.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 65.
    In Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to William Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus ( New York: Norton, 1997 ), p. 15.Google Scholar
  30. 68.
    See A. C. Southern, Elizabethan Recusant Prose 1559–1582: A historical and critical account of the books of the Catholic refugees printed and published abroad and at secret presses in England, together with an annotated bibliography of the same ( London: Sands, 1950 ), p. 36.Google Scholar
  31. 69.
    See Katherine Duncan -Jones, “Was the 1609 Shakes-speares Sonnets Really Unauthorized?” Review of English Studies 34 (1983): 151–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Adam Max Cohen 2006

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  • Adam Max Cohen

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