Andrew Murphy

Standard histories of Shakespeare publishing tend to focus on editions of Shakespeare which are considered to be editorially significant and which contribute to what is seen as a gradual evolution of editorial theory, with the modern edition as its end point. Thus, for example, overview histories of Shakespeare publishing in the eighteenth century tend to stress the importance of the editions produced by Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Johnson, Capell, Steevens and Malone, linking them in a progressivist editorial narrative.

In fact, however, this high editorial tradition has never represented more than a particular segment of Shakespeare publishing. Taking the example of the eighteenth century again, we might note that, while most of the editions listed above were published by the Tonson family and their associates, a number of other publishers sought to challenge the Tonson Shakespeare monopoly over the course of the century. While the editions produced by these publishers were generally of no particular editorial significance (often, indeed, they were simple derivatives of Tonson texts), nevertheless they did have a broader cultural significance, contributing, for instance, to the general popular dissemination of Shakespeare's texts.

A good example of this alternative strand of Shakespeare publishing is the series of individual play editions produced by Robert Walker in the years 1734-1735. Where individual plays typically sold for 1s each in the early eighteenth century, Walker marketed his editions (which could be gathered together into a seven volume set) at 4d each, thus putting the plays within the reach of a much wider public. Tonson threatened Walker with legal action to no avail and eventually was forced to produce his own 'spoiling' series, priced ultimately at a loss-making 1d a play. Giles Dawson has tentatively suggested that this great boom in ultra-cheap Shakespeare texts in the 1730s may not be unconnected with the great rise in Shakespeare's popularity in the theatre from the early 1740s onward.

Walker was one of a number of English-based publishers to challenge the Tonson monopoly in the eighteenth century. At the same time, a significant amount of Shakespeare editions were also being produced in Scotland and Ireland, and the history of these editions has also generally been underemphasised. Among the Scottish publishers to produce Shakespeare editions was Alexander Donaldson, who, in 1774, succeeded in having the terms of the 1710 'copyright' law clarified in a way which, effectively, brought to an end the notion of perpetual copyright, thus paving the way for the great expansion of Shakespeare publishing in the nineteenth century.

The proliferation of Shakespeare Cassell Imagepublishing in the 1800s brings the distinction between scholarly and popular traditions of publishing even more clearly into focus. Side by side with the standard parade of editorially significant editions (Malone-Boswell, Singer, Knight, Collier, Dyce, and Clark, Wright & Glover, etc.) we find such editions as Henry Morley's 'Cassell's National Library' series, in the pages of which the text is juxtaposed with a variety of contemporary adverts It is also in the nineteenth century that the physicality of the text itself becomes foregrounded, with the publication of such novelty editions as the tricesimosecundo Pickering 'Diamond type' edition, in which eighteen lines of type were squeezed into an inch of space. Pickering Image

There are, we can conclude, many more stories to be told about Shakespeare publishing than the standard histories make clear.

Illustrations courtesy of the owner, Andrew Murphy:
Top: King Lear from Cassell's National Library series.
Bottom: The Plays of Shakespeare. London: W. Pickering 1825.

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