Pirates May Make Cheape Penyworths of Their Pillage

In the summer of this year, a theatrical scandal threatened to take away the livelihood of all players. In July 1597, the Earl of Pembroke’s Men performed a satirical play entitled The Isle of Dogs at the Swan in Paris Garden. It lampooned various members of the administration and thus elicited the wrath of the authorities. It was considered to be a “lewd plaie” stuffed with “seditious and sclanderous matter.”1 One of the authors, and certain of the players, were arrested and imprisoned for three months. The part-author was in fact the young Ben Jonson; he had also acted in the production, and was promptly despatched to the Marshalsea. Jonson was twenty-five at the time, and The Isle of Dogs was the first play he had written or had helped to write; his was certainly a fiery baptism. He later recalled “the tyme of his close imprisonment” when “his judges could gett nothing of him to all their demands but I and No.”2 It is difficult to imagine Shakespeare in such unpleasant circumstances, but he would not have dreamed of writing anything remotely seditious or slanderous. He was not a rebel or incendiary; he was firmly within the boundaries of the Elizabethan polity.

The Privy Council then demanded that “no plaies shalbe used within London … during this tyme of sommer” and furthermore that “those playhouses that are erected and built only for suche purposes shal be plucked downe.” 3 It was one of those announcements that flew in the face of all urban realities—equivalent to the proclamations demanding a halt in the growth of the city itself—and was never properly enforced. Tudor edicts sometimes give the impression of being rhetorical gestures rather than legal requirements. It is possible that the declaration was aimed at the Swan since it demanded the destruction of those playhouses that were erected “only” for the performance of plays. Henslowe at the Rose, for example, might argue that his venue was also used for other forms of entertainment; in any case he continued as if nothing untoward had happened. The justices of Middlesex and Surrey specifically ordered the owners of the Curtain Theatre “to pluck downe quite the stages, gallories and roomes” but again the order was not obeyed. If the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were still playing here, as seems likely, they could shelter in the shadow of their great patron.

They did, however, decide to go on tour. In August they went down to the fishing port of Rye, built on a sandstone hill, and then journeyed to Dover; from there they moved on in September to Marlborough, Faversham, Bath and Bristol. There is every reason to believe that Shakespeare was with them on their travels.

The “inhibition” upon playing in London was lifted in October, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men returned to the Curtain. It may have been in this season that “Curtaine plaudeties”4 were heard for performances of Romeo and Juliet, which was one of three plays by Shakespeare published this year in volume form. They were three of his most popular dramas, and it is likely that they were all being performed in this period. Publication would then be a way of exploiting their success in a different market. In August The Tragedie of King Richard the Second appeared on the book stalls. It proved such a success that two further editions were published in the succeeding year. It was followed in October by The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. This play was reprinted four more times in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Then in the following month Romeo and Juliet appeared in volume form.

There is a difference, however, in the nature of the publications. The first two were published by Andrew Wise and printed by Valentine Simms, but An Excellent Conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet was simply printed by John Danter without a named publisher. Earlier that year Danter’s presses had been raided by the authorities and Danter charged with printing The Jesus Psalter “and other things without aucthoritie.” 5 This edition of Romeo and Juliet was one of those printed without requisite authority. Two years later another edition appeared under the title of The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie, of Romeo and Iuliet with the addition, “Newly corrected, augmented, and amended.” This amplified edition was printed from the text used by the playhouse—there is a direction for “Will Kempe”—which may imply that the author did not have his own version of the play. Danter’s premises were raided in the spring of 1597, and it seems very likely that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men then gave Richard II and Richard IIIto Andrew Wise as a way of pre-empting any other possible thefts. In subsequent years they employed a printer, James Roberts, to place “blocking” entries in the Stationers’ Register; he would register a manuscript with the proviso that it could not be printed “without licence first had from the right honorable the Lord Chamberlain” or some such wording.

It seems likely that the version of Romeo and Juliet used by Danter was a corrupt or maimed text. It could, for example, have been the product of a hack writer working with someone who knew the play well and who had seen it many times in performance. Such a person might have been Thomas Nashe, who was associated both with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and with the printer John Danter.6 Another candidate as midwife for the corrupted text is Henry Chettle, the dramatist who had clashed with Shakespeare over Greene’s remarks about the “upstart Crow.” Chettle participated in the writing of forty-nine plays in the course of his short life; he was one of a number of Elizabethan writers who lived literally from hand to mouth, working incessantly for the voracious medium of the public theatre. A contemporary traveller remarked that “there be, in my opinion, more Playes in London then in all the partes of the worlde I have seene,”7 and it is calculated that between 1538 and 1642 some three thousand plays were written and performed.

There are six editions of Shakespeare’s plays that have been described by some textual scholars as “bad quartos”—The Contention, The True Tragedy, Henry the Fifth, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the first quartos of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. They are significantly shorter than the versions eventually published in the Folio or collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays that was published after his death. In these quartos lines are paraphrased, characters are omitted, and scenes are placed in a different order from other versions. It may be that an adapter shortened them, for purposes now unknown, and that adapter may even have been Shakespeare himself. It is generally agreed that the Folio edition is transcribed from Shakespeare’s “foul papers” or manuscripts, however, while the shorter quartos reflect an actual performance of the play; the stage-directions are often unusually full and vivid. In the same spirit of performance the cuts in the shorter quartos are designed to add pace and simplicity to the plot, removing undue complexity or awkwardness of staging. The poetry goes, where it is not germane to the story, and extraneous dialogue or characterisation is also removed.

It is not at all clear who was responsible for these adaptations. They might have been put together by a book-keeper or even by Shakespeare himself. It has also been suggested, as we have seen, that they were the product of “memorial reconstruction” by certain of the actors involved in the original production. The nature and purpose of such an activity, however, remain unclear. It has even been proposed that the plays were the product of certain members of the audience who, wishing to pirate them, transcribed them in shorthand or what was then known as brachygraphy. One playwright complains of a pirated edition that was produced “by Stenography … scarce one word trew.”8 Given the relatively strict conditions of publication, however, the hypothesis seems untenable.

There is of course no reason to call these six shorter plays “bad” quartos; they are simply different. They do illustrate, however, the somewhat brutal way in which Shakespeare’s texts could be treated. At the time of first rehearsal or first performance whole soliloquies could be taken out, lines reassigned and scenes transposed for the sake of narrative efficiency. If they were indeed performed in that fashion, Shakespeare must have concurred in the changes. His position as an eminently practical and pragmatic man of the theatre once more becomes clear.

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