Remains of the play

In 1902, “a German gentleman” brought to the British Museum a quarto volume, stamped with the name of the early seventeenth-century lawyer and book collector Edward Gwynn. That quarto volume contained “nine Shakespearian (or pseudo-Shakespearian) plays”, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Henry V and King Lear. The plays had dates on their title-pages between 1600 and 1619. AW Pollard of the British Museum sought but failed to find the volume “an English home”; it was sold by Bernard Quaritch to the Rhode Island banker and book collector Marsden J. Perry, and by Perry to the dealer ASW Rosenbach who, in 1919, sold it to Henry Clay Folger of the Standard Oil Company for the huge price of $50,000.

When other volumes with all or some of the same plays were identified, it was clear that they were not random collections compiled by individual contemporary enthusiasts for the drama but, as Pollard had suspected, evidence of the remaindering of some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Pollard’s younger friend WW Greg established that the papers used in these quartos came from similar stocks, indicating that the books were all printed at the same time, in or around 1619, and that the earlier dates in some of the quartos were therefore false. Both Pollard and Greg identified the guiding hand behind the quartos as Thomas Pavier, whose initials appeared on five of the nine plays in the Gwynn volume. By superimposing the title-pages of Pericles (1619) and The Merchant of Venice (“1600”), William Neidig confirmed that they had been set using standing type and were printed at the same time.

What exactly these quartos were, how they came to be produced and marketed, and what they tell us about Shakespeare are questions that have never quite been resolved. In particular, once it was further established that they were all printed together by William and Isaac Jaggard, the collection’s relationship to the First Folio of 1623 posed further questions. Some – but not all – of these questions are answered by Zachary Lesser in his informative and highly entertaining account of “Shakespeare in 1619”.

In the course of his work on the quartos, Lesser has examined 289 copies of them and had a further fifty-three inspected on his behalf by others. This “close looking” has paid most attention to three types of evidence: “ghosts”, faint images made by the transference of ink between recto and verso sides of pages; “holes” made when a book of only a few gatherings is stab-stitched to be sold as an individual item, rather than bound in a volume; and “rips and scrapes”, when material on a title-page, usually part of the imprint, has been removed or scraped away and, often at a later date, replaced with new matter. The presence of ghostly images allows the existence of copies of these quartos, and so their relationship to each other, to be recovered, even when the individual parts have long been separated. The comparative absence of stab-stitching in the quartos of 1619 shows that they were marketed together as a group, rather than individually. The ripping and scrapings to which their imprints and especially their dates have been subject (and their restoration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) show that an attempt was made by the Jaggards to hide or undo the deception of the false dates.

Lesser uses these different sorts of evidence, as well as sale catalogs, to show that there were more collections (as many as nineteen) of the Gwynn kind than still survive, and that the “third Edition” (no second edition is known) of Thomas Heywood’s tragedy A Woman Killed with Kindness (1617) was sold with the quartos, “possibly with other plays.” In all this, Jaggard was the “key agent” of the sale of the plays, but they were “hardly the best sellers among Shakespeare’s works”; Instead, they formed a collection that its publishers “could package together for a new readership after Shakespeare’s death, as a kind of ‘rediscovered masterpieces'”. The false dates were intended to deceive purchasers, the King’s Men, the Lord Chamberlain and perhaps Edward Blount, “the primary” stationer, who with the Jaggards was to be involved in the First Folio. The intention was to produce a volume that looked as though it had been made up by a previous owner of “a few new plays with a bunch of old ones”. The deliberate damage to the title pages was part of this and was later hidden by bookbinders and by the pen-facsimile work of men such as John Harris. The rich variety of evidence that Lesser martials so clearly for the various title page rips and, as part of a separate process, the scrapes is, at the end, and by his own admission, baffling: “every coherent explanation for those alterations seems unduly complex and hypothetical.” He is equally uncertain that it will ever be possible to “reconstruct exactly what happened”, but the Jaggards’ later involvement in the First Folio suggests that they succeeded in their plan.

Ghosts, Holes, Rips and Scrapes is a significant contribution to unraveling the history of the pavier, or rather the jaggard, quartos. Its wider value lies not just in the more technical approaches to examining printed books, but in showing what can be learned by looking at multiple copies of the same book and by tracing the histories of individual copies. Part of Lesser’s argument is that the exponents of the “New Bibliography” (he is principally referring to Pollard and Greg) thought “in terms of editions rather than individual copies“. This was not their only “ideological barrier”; they also suffered from “methodological biases”, “ideological presuppositions” and “constrained parameters”, causing them to be subject to “a scholarly blind spot”. It is not easy to reconcile this view with the work either of the joint compiler of A Census of Shakespeare’s Plays in Quarto or of the author of A Bibliography of the English Drama. Despite this unfavorable view towards his predecessors, Lesser has produced an account that all of those interested in looking closely at old books, and especially at early editions of Shakespeare, will greatly enjoy reading.

HR Woudhuysen is Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford

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