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Shakespeare: The Ultimate Market Product

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Tags Media and CultureWorld HistoryEntrepreneurship

11/16/2011Morgan A. Brown

Shakespeare's status as a legendary playwright is partly the outcome of four centuries of textual revision and reconstruction. Much of the work that went into perfecting Shakespeare's published texts was done in the first six decades of the 18th century. During that period, no fewer than six major editions of Shakespeare's dramatic corpus appeared on the London book market, published by Jacob Tonson and his eponymous great-nephew.

Each edition that the Tonsons produced was subject to fierce debate, fiery criticism, and market competition. What emerged from this process of competition and redistribution in the 1700s was a Shakespeare more ordered, digestible, and masterful than any other shade of the Bard that had existed 100 years prior.

Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Jonson, praised the Bard's plays as "not of an age, but for all time" in the posthumous First Folio (1623) edition of Shakespeare's plays. But such inflated encomia were so common in Elizabethan and Stuart England that anyone familiar with commendatory verses treats such panegyrics as mere convention. In other words, the publication of the First Folio did not mark an earth-shattering event in English letters. The star was not yet born. Reproductions of the First Folio reappeared in 1632, 1664, and 1685, each with a host of corrections, emendations, and textual innovations (in addition to the inclusion of plays whose authorship was wrongly attributed to the Bard).

Of all the sins that a writer can commit, Shakespeare had committed the truly mortal one: he never established authoritative texts for his plays during his lifetime. Until the early 1700s, Shakespeare's texts were in an appalling state. The eternal promise of Jonson's commendatory verses was, for the most part, unfulfilled in popular imagination.

Jacob Tonson and his great-nephew saw an opportunity for a profit, and they decided to release comprehensive editions of Shakespeare in order to drive inferior editions out of market circulation. As an accidental consequence, Shakespeare's texts moved closer to uniformity and poetic excellence, simultaneously boosting critical regard for the Bard's works. The Tonsons continually hired what they saw as the cream of the literary crop to produce their new-and-improved octavo editions: Nicholas Rowe, Alexander Pope, Lewis Theobald, William Warburton, Samuel Johnson, and Edward Capell. Though the Tonsons were imperfect capitalists — they were monopolists by way of copyright — the publishing firm managed to revolutionize world literature by force of the much-maligned profit motive, in an age where aristocratic patronage was being gradually supplanted by the market.[1]

Shakespeare's 17th-century editors were often reviled by the later editors hired out by Tonson's heir, Jacob the Younger. Even these early editors made significant improvements in Shakespeare's First Folio text by revising the Bard's grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word choice. They vied with one another to establish their own professional reputations, at times modernizing Shakespeare's texts, and at times repairing errors in the "originals." In Hamlet, for instance, one pioneering editor's quick wits saved Laertes from being forever remembered by posterity as an apologist for tyranny.

In the fourth act of Hamlet, Laertes breaks into King Claudius's court and confronts the king. He demands to know who has killed his bumbling old father, Polonius. Claudius expresses some concern at Laertes's state of mind, since he knows that Prince Hamlet is the culprit against whom Laertes has sworn vengeance. The unscrupulous fratricide nevertheless sees in Laertes a convenient assassin who might rid the court of the troublesome prince. In the 1623 First Folio, Laertes promises to show mercy to Polonius's true friends in a simile that smacks of tasteless etatism:

To his good Friends, thus wide Ile ope my Armes:

And like the kinde Life-rend'ring Politician,

Repast them with my blood.[2]

As the First Folio would have it, Laertes makes a vital comparison between friendship and statecraft. Only the self-sacrificing "Politician" can show in what true friendship consists — namely, allowing Polonius's closest friends to suckle at the almighty power teat of a glorified public servant.

Fortunately for posterity, one editor had the sound presence of mind to recognize the absurdity of such a tasteless proposition. In one fell swoop, this editor forever preserved Laertes's honor by finding a word "beginning with p, ending with n, and containing an i, an a, and a c" that preserved Laertes's meaning — "pelican," in point of fact.[3] According to one tradition, the female pelican was believed to revive its children with blood drawn from a wound in its breast.

The noble "pelican" remains with us to this day in our polished and scholarly editions of Hamlet. Posterity has been spared Laertes's nonsense about life-giving politicians, and Shakespeare's editors managed to reveal a profound and universal truth in the process: even a pelican can do a politician's job with half the trouble and twice the sense.

Aside from these consequential trivialities, the fact remains that Shakespeare was far from a legendary figure in the theatrical world until the middle of the 18th century. His plays were infrequently performed; and even when they were performed, the scripts that the players' troops consulted were far from refined. Acting companies trimmed Shakespeare's often-longwinded monologues down to a minimum to keep the audience's attention.

Meanwhile, audiences often preferred to watch elaborate operatic adaptations and revisions of Shakespeare's plays by Dryden, Betterton, or William Davenant. Many of those adaptations are barely recognizable as Shakespeare. Because the Bard's plays were pruned, Shakespeare was still not "all there" in the public imagination. Many playgoers never had the chance to know the fullness of Shakespeare's poetic talents.

Even when the Tonsons produced and reproduced their six editions of Shakespeare in the 1700s, they put their efforts behind other poets and dramatists. Shakespeare was far from unique with regard to the attention paid to his works, and he was only one poet among many included in the Tonson house's series of vulgar classics. The Bard's editorial campaign marched on only as long as profits from Tonson's productions paid for the initial investments.

In the 18th century, Shakespeare's prestige entered a period of protracted boom. Through market competition, Tonson's editors established a growing supply of texts to meet demand for textual refinement. Shakespeare made a transition from the stage to the book, which is a transition that boosted the playwright's reputation among his 18th-century critics.

In 1709, Nicholas Rowe undertook the first complete edition of Shakespeare's plays for £36.10s, which was a healthy sum for Rowe's hackwork.[4] Tonson marketed Rowe's Shakespear to social elites, and his first edition "sold for 30 shillings, a sum that put it well beyond the means of most print consumers."[5] It was a first attempt at an authoritative Shakespeare, and the work stimulated significant demand among subscribers and the market.

Rowe relied too heavily on the Fourth Folio (1685), which resulted the propagation of many misprints, typos, and even seven spurious plays that did not belong to Shakespeare. He also modernized Shakespeare's spelling — a decision about which many contemporary critics expressed abhorrence. But it should be remembered that even in 1668, Dryden found Shakespeare's language archaic and hard to comprehend. Rowe's work went a way towards reconciliation of readability and a faithfulness to faulty sources. This pioneering Shakespear was a commercial success, in part because the critics had so much about which to complain.

Prior to Rowe's six-volume octavo edition, Shakespeare's plays had yet to be uniformly divided into acts and scenes. Elizabethan plays were written for continuous performance, and hence did not follow a clear act/scene format.[6] The First Folio had introduced the classical five-act structure of drama, but the division of scenes would undergo much editing for the next 200 years, since it was never clear that the First Folio had correctly marked the proper places of division.

Rowe's Shakespear was trashed by the critics, but Tonson saved the project from complete disaster through a series of masterful publication decisions. He printed lists of dramatis personae to preface each play, included stage directions (which were often inconsistent in earlier editions), and included a set of beautiful illustrations for each play, featuring the key scenes. These attractions, which became the standard for later Tonson editions, marked significant improvements in the state of Shakespeare's texts. Rowe's one lasting contribution to bardolatry was his biography of Shakespeare.

In 1710, Edmund Curll — who was forever made the prototype of the unscrupulous publisher by Alexander Pope's Dunciad — released a "seventh" volume that he intended to pawn off as an original Rowe-Tonson production. This "seventh" volume included Shakespeare's poetic works, which were neglected by Rowe. When Rowe's edition was rereleased in eight volumes, Curll rereleased his piratical edition as the long-lost "ninth." Curll may not be remembered as a paragon of market honesty, but even he served an important turn in increasing the Bard's everlasting profit by disseminating his works.

Between 1723 and 1725, Tonson arranged for England's reigning wit, Alexander Pope, to edit an edition of Shakespeare's works. Tonson had earlier published Pope's inimitable Essay on Criticism (1711), along with Pope's Pastorals (1709). Pope's Shakespear is mainly remembered today for its preface. Critical hostility to Pope's editorial decisions, which met with some ridicule at the hands of his competitors, would eventually push the famous satirist to write his hilarious masterpiece, the Dunciad.

In the Dunciad, Pope picks fun at pedantic editors, poor translators, hack poets, and the market of books — a world of commercial wits that often proved hostile to Pope's own poetry. Almost by way of accident, Tonson's Shakespeare market led to the creation of one of the most masterful satires in the English language.

On the one hand, Pope's editing technique in his Shakespear is fascinating for the student of Pope. On the other hand, critics for nearly three centuries have held up Pope's Shakespear as a shining example of precisely what a textual scholar ought never to do. Posterity can read through Shakespeare and know without a doubt just which passages Pope enjoyed most in Shakespeare's body of works. Pope included a series of marks and symbols — daggers, double commas, and asterisks — in the margins of the text to demarcate what Pope felt were Shakespeare's particular "beauties."[7] While these marks are of interest to Pope scholars, many critics (in particular, Samuel Johnson) found this editorial tactic to be absolutely devoid of taste. In one of the worst editorial decisions of his career, Pope decided to simply "disappear" Shakespeare's worst lines from the text, relegating them to unobtrusive footnotes.

Pope's edition was priced too high and, like Rowe's, neglected Shakespeare's poetic works. A rival edition once again rose up through competing publishers to supply what the Tonsons did not include in their editions.

Among Pope's many critics ranked Lewis Theobald (the "Tibbald" of Pope's Dunciad). To be sure, Pope deserved every criticism he received, and Theobald managed to highlight every weakness in Pope's text in Shakespeare Restor'd (1727). Even though Theobald disparaged Tonson's project by destroying Pope's Shakespear, Tonson was apparently so impressed by Theobald's expertise that he invited Theobald to produce his own edition of Shakespeare.

In Marketing the Bard, Don-John Dugas gives us a refreshing look at Theobald's entrepreneurial abilities. Through savvy marketing and sales pitches, Theobald managed to more than make up for his lack of a recognizable name. Tonson and Theobald contracted to print 500 copies at a cost of £600, which was nearly triple the cost of what Pope had received for his work.[8]

Theobald seems to have been as proficient a marketer as he was an editor, for the evidence suggests that he presold every set of the edition before it was published.… Theobald made £1,155 from these sales, plus £126 more as gifts from the Earl of Orrery and the Prince of Wales. No editor of Shakespeare's works published by the Tonsons earned more money from his edition than Theobald, not even Samuel Johnson.[9]

Theobald's editions cost between £2.2s and £3.3s, making them more expensive than Rowe's, but far less expensive than Pope's.

Samuel Johnson, the consummate Tory critic, produced a rich edition of Shakespeare's works for Tonson the Younger in order to gain a short reprieve from his lifelong struggle with debts. It was standing practice for an entrepreneurial writer to send out requests for startup capital in the form of subscriptions, which would serve as an advance on future profits in order to carry the project through to completion. In 1756, Johnson had published a request for subscriptions for a new edition of Shakespeare. Johnson promised to fix many of his predecessors' errors, but the project was interrupted two years later when Johnson was hauled into debtor's prison for an outstanding £40 debt. Tonson bailed Johnson out of his troubles, urging Johnson to speed up his endeavors. For the next four years, Johnson struggled to make headway, and his subscribers began to grumble at the delay. He finally finished his work in 1765, and the work was promptly published to remarkable success.


In his preface, Johnson executed one of the greatest pieces of literary criticism in the English language. He captured the true spirit of Shakespeare's excellence as the poet of nature, and encapsulated one of the keys to lasting literary success: "Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature."[10] Included in his edition were copious footnotes, extended stage directions, and a crystallization of the merits and demerits of the editors who had preceded him.

Shakespeare was a man of extraordinary talents — or so we surmise from the texts we now possess. The Bard could have been the greatest literary success to never happen had it not been for the spirit of competition that prevailed in the early 18th century among rival booksellers. John Dryden satirized Tonson, his own publisher, as a "bullfaced" man "with two left legs, and Judas-coloured hair, / With frowzy pores, that taint the ambient air"; but posterity owes the publisher and his descendants an enormous debt of gratitude.[11] Behind universal praise for William Shakespeare stands an awkward and freckled little publisher, his enterprising great-nephew, and six entrepreneurial editors, who forever changed the face of world literature.


[1] The Act of 1709 ended perpetual copyright in books, but the law was not progressively enforced until the 1744 case of Donaldson v. Becket.

[2] Shakespeare, William. The Tragedie of Hamlet. In Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Ed. John Heminge and Henry Condell. London: Isaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount, 1623. 274. In modern editions, this passage is found at 4.5.142-44. My italics.

[3] Black, Matthew W. "Shakespeare's Seventeenth Century Editors." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 76.5 (1936): 707-717. Cf. p. 712.

[4] Young, Alan R. Hamlet and the Visual Arts: 1709-1900. London: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp., 2002. 18.

[5] Hamm, Robert B., Jr. "Rowe's 'Shakespear' (1709) and the Tonson House Style." College Literature 31.3 (2004): 179-205. Cf. p. 189.

[6] The 1603 and 1604 quarto editions of Hamlet bear no marks of any division into acts and scenes at all.

[7] Cf. King, Edmund G. C. "Pope's 1723-25 Shakespear, Classical Editing, and Humanistic Reading Practices." Eighteenth-Century Life 32.2 (2008): 3-18.

[8] Dugas, Don-John. Marketing the Bard: Shakespeare in Performance and Print, 1660-1740. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. 206.

[9] Dugas, 206.

[10] Johnson, Samuel. Preface. In The Plays of William Shakespeare. Vol. 1. London: J. and R. Tonson, 1765. viii.

[11] Dryden, John. "Lines on Tonson." In Selected Poems. Ed. Steven N. Zwicker and David Bywaters. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. 397.

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