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The Collation

Battling over 18th-century rights to Shakespeare

In working on the Shakespeare Collection NEH grant-funded project for the past year, I have learned more than I ever imagined possible regarding the history of eighteenth-century publishing, particularly the “Shakespeare copyrights” and ownership disputes between booksellers. The feud between booksellers Jacob Tonson and Robert Walker is just such an example.

In the early eighteenth century, the Tonson firm held the copyright for Shakespeare works, publishing fine editions by popular editors such as Alexander Pope and Nicholas Rowe. Due to the Copyright Act of 1709, any “rights” that the firm previously held expired in 1731. Regardless of the law, the Tonsons and the other proprietors continued to hold claim to the rights and they actively intimidated their competitors from trying their publishing luck with the Bard.


Just a quick message – I recently bought several copies of Tonson’s Shakespeare at auction. I must admit I was taken in by the 1635 date. The covers are in a poor state but on finding that advert the set became quite facinating – so this is just a thank you for shedding more light on the matter.

Helen Wolfenden — June 19, 2013

[…] The four texts used are all single-play edition brought out by Tonson in 1734 as part of a campaign to drive the entrepreneurial Walker out of business. Antony and Cleopatra still has the […]

A Muse of Fire – Shakespeare Interleaved — October 24, 2013