Wednesday, 27 April 2016

How copyright helped make Shakespeare popular


Title page of First Folio, 1623. Copper engraving by Martin Droeshout.

A little-known fact: Nearly half-a-century after his death, Shakespeare was hardly a thing at all. His plays were hardly given; his popularity, if any, on a par with playwrights now barely known, and deservedly so. What changed things, you’ll be surprised to hear, was the very thing needed to underpin investment in his works. In a word: copyright.

Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate explains:

The crucial historical moment for the development of the editing of Shakespeare’s texts was the passing of the first proper Copyright Act in 1709 (coming into force in 1710). For the first time, copyright became vested in the author. If I am a publisher and I know that Shakespeare is good box office and people are going to read him, I’m going to want an edition of him on my list. But my problem, of course, is that Shakespeare is not around to assign me his copyright. So what I do is commission someone to produce an edition of Shakespeare, and I get the copyright of that edition. This is exactly what happened in the early eighteenth century – and is still happening today. The entrepreneurial publisher Jacob Tonson saw that the old folios of Shakespeare’s collected works were looking outdated, making the time propitious for a modern edition with the printing errors corrected, the act and scene numbers regularized, the spelling modernized, some explanatory notes inserted, and a lively introduction provided. He commissioned the poet and dramatist Nicholas Rowe to undertake this work, but kept the copyright vested in the publishing house. If anybody else wanted to do a Shakespeare, they would have to find a different way of editing him. The initial term of copyright was quite a short period: twenty-one years for all works already in print at the time of the statute’s enactment and fourteen years for all works published subsequently. So throughout the eighteenth century, every twenty years or so, Tonson and his successors – it was a family publishing firm – would commission someone else to do a new edition of Shakespeare, and in particular put in a new introduction, thus allowing them to update their copyright. By assigning contracts to successive leading figures in the literary world, such as Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, the house of Tonson kept their control of the mainstream text of Shakespeare.
   However, other people began to edit Shakespeare, in order to win a slice of the market, so decade by decade there was an ever-greater proliferation of editions, each presenting Shakespeare in subtly different ways and choosing different textual variants. Adding together ‘Complete Works’ and ‘Individual Plays’, there have been thousands of editions of Shakespeare. And, roughly speaking, every twenty years or so since Rowe’s of 1709, there has been a new Collected Works that embodies, to a greater or lesser extent, a rethinking of the principles and practices of Shakespearean editing. This is the feedback loop taken to an extreme: whereas fine dramatists such as Thomas Heywood and John Marston have had collected editions just once apiece, in the late nineteenth century, the market has demanded (or at least withstood) multiple recyclings of Shakespeare’s text. In publishing, as in the theatre, availability is one of the things that keeps him going. Because of that availability and that capacity for adaptability, there are a huge number of Shakespeares circulating and competing in the culture of Britain, the United States and (to a slightly lesser but still highly significant degree) the rest of the world. [My book] ‘The Genius of Shakespeare’ tells the story of how this has been the case for a very long time.

PS: The story comes from Bates’s excellent book The Genius of Shakespeare, which I was put onto by Marsha Enright. (Thanks Marsha.)

[Pic by Wikimedia Commons]



  1. "nd deservedly so"

    what se;lf importnat nonsense. He "survived" because he was one of the greatest authers on the English language, not because of some bizarre theory about copyrights. Totl claptrap.

    You are going to judge a man like this. What a pompous arse you are. They will be reading him for generations to come; you, on the other had are no more than gnat so far as enlgish writing goes. What a self important buffoon.

  2. Well, as the book makes clear, before the Copyright Act his players were not being given in large numbers, whereas after that Act they were. Which is the point, really.

    Your move.

    1. Correlation and causation are not the same thing.

    2. Agreed. A full explanation requires at least some explanation of causes. (For which, see above.)

    3. All the above article shows is that copyright limited the profit of Shakespeare's work to one entity. It has nothing to do with making Shakespeare popular among the public.

    4. A bit off topic, but some fool (an academic) in the NZ Herald last week said that Shakespeare was no longer relevant.

      How can a playwright who wrote about the human condition, which has not changed over millenia, be no longer relevant?

      And these people are teaching our young people.


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