Shakespeare and the Order of Books

Jean-Christophe Mayer
French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS)
and University of Montpellier


  1. John Keats once wrote about Shakespeare that “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no identity—he is continually [informing][1]—and filling some other body” (1: 390). While Romantic poets are traditionally accused of having conveyed an author-centred vision of the creative process, Keats is also pointing here indirectly to the embodied text of Shakespeare, to its configuration, or form, to use concepts which this collection aims to investigate.

  2. The material production of the Shakespearean text—especially in its early configurations or forms—will be the focus of this essay. I am particularly interested in exploring the way that Shakespeare the historical actor and writer was embodied in his editions, but also how his plays were materialized for the sake of his readers. I will concentrate on early editions of Shakespeare and more specifically on their paratextual material, which I will try to set in the larger context of the paratextual material that appeared in playbooks from the beginning of the Elizabethan era. According to the research that I carried out using Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser’s Database of Early English Playbooks (DEEP), it appears that nearly 20% of playbooks published between 1550 and 1659 contained prefaces addressed to their readers.[2] This is not a negligible figure, and I shall argue that these prefaces created what Roger Chartier has helpfully called an “order”: “The book always aims at installing an order, whether it is the order in which it is deciphered, the order in which it is to be understood, or the order intended by the authority who commanded or permitted the work” (vii). Moreover, as a material object a book has a form which partly determines its uses and the way it can be appropriated. The order created both by the material forms of the book and by the intentions invested in it relies on a set of codes and conventions. As we shall see, these were far from homogenous and tried to shape readers’ material, symbolic and intellectual relationship to the book. In the case of Shakespeare, as we know, these prefaces are few and far between in the single-play editions of his works, the most abundant paratextual material being in the folios. Yet it will be fruitful to study the Shakespearean paratextual material in the light of both earlier and later prefaces addressed to playbook readers, to see how the early modern reading experience of Shakespeare and more generally of plays was beginning to be shaped.

  3. If books install an order, they are also spaces where meaning is created through mediation and exchange. Meaning is of course never simply “configured” by authors for the sake of their readers. As Jerome J. McGann explained in his influential book, The Textual Condition (1991), “Authorship is a special form of human communicative exchange, and it cannot be carried on without interactions, cooperative and otherwise, with various persons and audiences. In these events editors and publishers function as the means by which a text's interaction with its audience(s) is first objectively hypothesized and tested” (64). It is precisely this material and symbolic testing ground that I now wish to explore.

  4. Paratextual material and prefaces addressed to playbook readers, attempting to establish a dialogue with their buyers, often tell fantastical stories of how a given book came to be materialized. In fact, their stories are as much about the metaphoric coming into existence of a child or individual as they are about print production. Such stories tend to romanticize the journey of the text from playhouse to printing house. Thus, John Day, the printer of Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc (1565) recounts how he first came across the text of the play. He tells the story of a “faire maide” who had been “brayed and disfigured” and had strayed before her authors “new apparelled, trimmed, and attired her in such forme as she was before.” Day adds that he would have willingly kept her at home with him, as she was not much of a burden, and all he did finally to prepare her for the public was to dress her up in “this one poore blacke gowne lined with white that I haue now geuen her to goe abroad among you withall” (sig. A2r). The “poore blacke gowne lined with white” refers to Day’s choice to print the book in black letter, whose dark, dense font overpowered the whiteness of the page, while the metaphor of clothing, which is both symbolic and material, reminded its readers that the volume belonged to the physical world as well as to the fictive.[3] Furthermore, by using a metaphor of embodiment, Day’s paratext, like the paratexts of many other plays, lends value to his work of conserving a theatrical text.[4]

  5. The book is described by Day as an object with a life of its own, one whose materiality lends it powerful symbolic meaning, but also betrays its incredible frailty. As Day’s story suggests, books are texts in specific materialized “states,” and they already have complex and often very different histories before they reach print. Day indirectly emphasizes that, given their reliance on a form that can be physically damaged, or that can disappear altogether, the text and the book are both unstable. Indeed, these printed configurations of the dramatic text are themselves as delicate as the manuscripts they relied on, despite the sometimes wild claims of their printers or publishers.

  6. In the preface to William Cartwright’s Comedies, Tragicomedies, With other Poems (1651), Thomas Cole wrote a comic warning to the bookworms which might feel tempted to feed on Cartwright’s book:
    But O take heed ye worms of Cartvvright 's Wit,
    His Lines are strong, you may a surfeit get;
    You must forbear who can tast nought but Ink,
    And never deeper than the Paper sink;
    Your shallow senslesse Teeth must never look
    To rellish so profound and wise a Book
    Cartvvright 's is […] (sig. πa3r)
    The material book provides a metaphorical framework by which editors, publishers and authors create an order of books for their readers. It also foregrounds the tentative dialogue that the creators of the book initiate with their readers. It is no surprise, then, to encounter the figure of the author in paratexts which seek to interact with their readers. To some extent, Michel Foucault’s “author function” is at work here, in which “the author's name serves to characterize a certain mode of being of discourse” (107). Foucault’s now famous “author function” is useful in that it reminds us that the author who is mentioned or who signs his name in prefaces of playbooks is partly a construct, a fabricated mask, and—in other words—a means of interaction with the reader. Nonetheless, Foucault’s author function is also misleading in the sense that it obliterates the empirical author, whose intentions book historians have recently somewhat redeemed.[5]

  7. The author figure is a fundamental means of configuring books, and the prefaces to Shakespeare’s early editions are a case in point, as we shall see. However, reducing the configuration of dramatic texts to linguistic games—what Foucault calls “a certain functional principle” (118-19)—does not quite account for the limited but genuine role played by authors. In fact, Chartier believes that it is time for the author to return, even if his position is necessarily both “dependent and constrained” (28). The prologue in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1601) is thus “armed,” “but not in confidence / Of author’s pen or actor’s voice” (23-24), because the success of the play depends not just on the author, or the actors, but on the interactions between the writing, the performance and an audience’s reception of the play. Likewise, Henry V’s final chorus speaks of “our bending author” who “with rough and all-unable pen […] hath pursued the story” (5.3.1-3). The author imagined in these plays is not just the centrepiece of a metaphor of embodiments, or the figure whose fashioning guides the reader’s interpretation: he is, rather, actively engaged in the writing (or production) of a play, helping to guide (but not to determine) its performance. Similarly, authors of books operate within frameworks which allow them limited interaction with their readers, and thus limited influence on the order of the book. As Chartier explains, the author’s intentions “are not necessarily imposed either on those who turn his text into a book (bookseller-publishers or print workers) or on those who appropriate it by reading it. He is constrained in that he undergoes the multiple determinations that organize the social space of literary production” (28-29).

  8. The interaction between the peculiar role played by the empirical author and the uses to which the author figure is put by early modern publishers and editors (what Foucault calls the “author function”) explains the often paradoxical statements made by playwrights, or by those putatively writing on their behalf, in their books. In a preface addressed “To the reader in ordinarie,” Ben Jonson anticipates the reception of the printed edition of Catiline his Conspiracy (1611) and imagines the reader manipulating and appropriating the material book: “The Muses forbid, that I should restrayne your medling, whom I see alreadie busie with the Title, and tricking ouer the leaues: It is your owne. I departed with my right, when I let it first abroad.” While Jonson seems to have handed over all rights to his book, he still tries to retain a measure of influence by stating his preferences. Indeed, this first preface is followed by another addressed this time “To the Reader extraordinary,” for whom he would wish his book to be tailored or configured: “You I would vnderstand to be the better Man” (sig. A3r ).

  9. It would seem that the configuring of books partly consists in testing out ways of interacting with readers through imaginary dialogue. Authors sometimes betray their uneasiness about this, as the imagined overlap between the world of the book and the world of the reader can never be more than tentative. As Nathan Field writes (part humorously but also no doubt with some anxiety) in the preface to his readers of A Woman is a Weathercock (1612), the hoped-for exchange with the reader may well turn out to be one-sided: “Introth you are a stranger to me; why should I Write to you? you neuer writ to mee, nor I thinke will not answere my Epistle” (sig. A3v).

  10. Other authors use the metaphor of the embodied book to try to explore the ways in which the book might literally and figuratively speak to the reader. Jasper Heywood imagined how his translation of Seneca’s Thyestes (1560) could relate to its public. Heywood saw his book as a transactional object,[6] one that might serve as an intermediary between human beings and, in this instance, as a messenger of the translator’s intentions: “Thou lytle booke my messenger must be,” wrote Heywood in an epistle entitled “The translatour to the booke” (sig. *3r). The book is also configured in such a way that its ultimate function is to generate an intimacy between itself and the reader. This is when the author exits the scene of the imagined dialogue, as Lewis Machin concludes in his preface “To the vnderstanding Reader” in the preliminaries of a play entitled The Dumb Knight (1608): “Thus leauing you and the booke together, I euer rest yours” (sig. A3r). The ultimate fantasy—that of an unmediated meeting between the book and its reader—is constructed in another playbook, John Day’s Law Tricks (1608). The preface, titled “The Booke to the Reader,” again tries to configure the book in such a way as to impose an order onto the reader’s reaction:
    Honest Reader, by thy patience, this is the first time of our meeting, & it may be the last, that's as we shal agree at parting, woot buy me, the stationer thankes thee; woot reade mee, doe: but picke no more out of me, then he that writ put into me: nor knowe me not better then he that made me (sig. A2r).
    Indeed, the book’s own fictional voice figures the meeting between the book and the readers to be a direct dialogue in which the book gives the reader a clear set of limits.

  11. It should be clear by now that what Gérard Genette called paratext is more than just “a threshold,” a “vestibule,” or “an airlock” between the world of the book and the world of the reader. For one thing, Genette’s metaphor depends on an often overlooked opposition between a “flexible,” “versatile” paratext serving as “an instrument of adaptation” and a text that is deemed “immutable” and “incapable of adapting to changes in its public in space and over time” (408): this opposition clearly cannot be applied to either the paratexts of Elizabethan playbooks or published editions of Shakespeare. For as we know, the text too is flexible: it is regularly reshaped for its readers, and evolves as much as the paratext and often in parallel to it. Besides, as I have tried to suggest, the order of books relies on sets of devices through which the producers of a book seek to imagine and configure how it will interact with its readers. The order of books fosters experimental text-reader interactions which rely on imaginary elements and constructs.

  12. Critics wonder sometimes what it was like to read Shakespeare without the critical material and other reading aids to which we have become accustomed. It is true that before the first folio, the vast majority of early Shakespeare editions were printed with hardly any paratext. Had the publishers of these works wanted (or perhaps had they had the means) they could have produced so-called critical editions of these plays. There had been precedents in this domain. Ben Jonson’s scholarly marginal notes in the printed edition of Sejanus (1605) are perhaps the most famous example. Well before, in 1588, Maurice Kyffin’s translation of Terence’s play Andria was published in an edition which contained some explanatory notes. Yet, the notes of Kyffin’s edition, which was partly destined to “young Students of the Latin tong,” had an educational purpose, and were also probably meant to compensate for the fact that the play’s recent theatrical history was very limited. As for Jonson, the scholarly notes in Sejanus were no doubt intended to give a second lease of life to a play which had not been successful in the theatre and which was now marketed as a neo-classical work of literature.

  13. One reason which might explain why so little paratextual and/or critical material appeared in early editions of Shakespeare was because they were intended as supplements to the stage, for spectators who wished to prolong the experience of the play, or who had missed it. However, while it would have been foolish on the part of Shakespeare’s publishers to deny the works’ close links with the stage, his plays could sometimes be marketed as literature and geared towards a readership interested in classical authors. This seems to have been partly the intentions of the publishers of the 1609 quarto of Troilus and Cressida. The edition exists in two states, as if the publishers Richard Bonian and Henry Walley had second thoughts about how to commercialize the quarto. In its first setting, the title page states that the play was printed “As it was acted by the Kings Maiesties seruants at the Globe.” This statement is omitted in the second setting and a preface to the reader (“A neuer writer, to an euer reader. Newes.”) even claims that “you have here a new play, never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar” (sig. ¶2r). In addition, the “The Historie of Troylus and Cresseida” becomes “The Famous Historie of Troylus and Cresseid. Excellently expressing the beginning of their loues, with the conceited wooing of Pandarus Prince of Licia. The title’s careful choice of words—“Famous,” “Excellently expressing” and “conceited wooing”—emphasizes the literary qualities of the story. Indeed, the epistle prevails upon its readers to dedicate the time and energy to reading it that they would to revered classics: “It deserues such a labour, as well as the best Commedy in Terence or Plautus” (sig. ¶2v).

  14. Even if they allege that the play was never performed, Bonian and Walley do not cut the work off from its Shakespearean dramatic context. The preface to the reader claims that Troilus and Cressida was written in the same vein as other Shakespearean comedies and that many of these have didactic purposes: “this authors Commedies, that are so fram'd to the life, that they serue for the most common Commentaries, of all the actions of our liues” (sig. ¶2r). Those “common Commentaries” might have reminded readers of the classical commonplaces (or loci communes). The epistle to the reader argues also that Shakespeare’s comedies are written in the classical tradition: “they seeme (for their height of pleasure) to be borne in that sea that brought forth Venus” (sig. ¶2r). The reference to Venus may well have been an allusion to Shakespeare’s best-selling narrative poem about the classical story of Venus and Adonis (1593). The epistle closes on “Vale,” the Latin farewell. Thus, through this paratext, Bonian and Walley configure the text as Shakespearean and as classical, and point to a potential reading method, of gleaning commonplaces from classical works. Their farewell also signals that they are attempting to speak in the erudite language of their targeted, learned readers.

  15. Bonian and Walley also targeted another potential market, that of book collectors. The epistle points out humorously that investing in the work of an aged artist is a sound venture: “And beleeue this, that when hee is gone, and his Commedies out of sale, you will scramble for them, and set vp a new English Inquisition” (sig. ¶2v). The 1622 quarto edition of Othello appears to confirm their claim. Six years after Shakespeare’s death and just a year before the publication of the first folio, the deceased dramatist’s name is deemed sufficient by the publisher Thomas Walkley to add prestige to the playbook and to guarantee its literary worthiness to any potential reader: “I am the bolder, because the Authors name is sufficient to vent his worke” (sig. A2r).

  16. Nonetheless, it is with the first and second folios of Shakespeare’s plays that the “author function” begins to operate fully and that what was previously a body of separate works begins to be ordered so as to form an œuvre. This does not mean of course that the composition of the first folio was not in some regards a matter of chance or circumstances (the late addition of Troilus and Cressida between the Histories and the Tragedies sections due to copyright issues being a case in point).[7] This sense of an œuvre is conveyed by the fact that playbook readers are given prominent attention. As they open the first folio, readers are greeted by Ben Jonson’s epistle “To the Reader” with the Droeshout engraved portrait of Shakespeare on the facing page. Yet Jonson’s poem also directs the reader’s gaze away from the portrait: “[…] Reader, looke / Not on his Picture, but his Booke” (sig. A1v).

  17. The portrait is there to reassure readers that the book is authentic, as the image purports to be a representation of the historical author. However imperfect the portrait, what Chartier calls “the assignation of the text to a single 'I' immediately visible” is there to “reinforce the notion that the writing is the expression of an individuality that gives authenticity to the work” (52). The metaphor of embodiment (the writer embodied in his works, or rather the works embodying the writer) relies on realistic images of an individual author, even though the first folio is in truth a product of a collective enterprise which is dependent upon communities of readers. Moreover, the press and the materialized book produced by it acquire a central role in the process—a role that Shakespeare’s readers cannot ignore.

  18. Thus, Shakespeare’s first folio is ordered so that access to the historical individual who partly produced the text is only possible through the mediation of the material book. John Heminges's and Henry Condell’s ensuing dedication to the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery reminds readers that Shakespeare’s company was part of powerful social and political networks. But these lines also have an incantatory and performative value: “we most humbly consecrate to your H.H. these remaines of your seruant Shakespeare” (sig. A2v). The material book establishes a link between the past and the present, between the world of the dead and that of the living. The first folio is thus given a dual role: the author’s death is consecrated in the book in order to allow the author figure to be reborn in and through the book (“to keepe the memory of so worthy a Friend, & Fellow aliue,” sig. A2v). Some seven years after the author’s physical death, the 1623 folio completes the mourning process: the physical void left by the departed person is filled by a symbolic figure materialized by the book.

  19. This process cannot be fully realized without the assistance of readers. Heminges’s and Condell’s lines addressed “To the great Variety of Readers,” referring to the book’s succession of prefaces and commendatory epistles, seek to expand the network of readers (and interpreters) of this text: “And so we leaue you to other of his Friends, whom if you need, can bee your guides: if you neede them not, you can leade your selues, and others. And such Readers we wish him” (sig. A3r). First folio readers will encounter other readers in the book’s paratext and they will in turn encourage new people to join this prestigious and yet open community. Given that reading and writing were still taught as separate skills at the time, Heminges’s and Condell’s evocation of a prospective readership that included “From the most able, to him that can but spell” might not have reflected entirely wishful thinking on their part (sig. A3r).

  20. The ensuing commendatory poems continue to construct Shakespeare as a literary author, but they can be seen also as potent celebrations of the book and of reading. In his second poem of praise, titled “To the memory of my beloued, The avthor mr. vvilliam shakespeare: and what he hath left vs,” Ben Jonson suggests that Shakespeare the author is now both kept alive and monumentalized by the book: “Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe, / And art aliue still, while thy Booke doth liue, / And we haue wits to read, and praise to giue” (sig. A3r). In other words, readers will now ensure the lasting value of the author’s writings. Furthermore, according to Jonson, the book will bring light and new hope to the bereaved stage: “the drooping Stage; / Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourn'd like night, / And despaires day, but for thy Volumes light” (sig. A3v).

  21. The second folio of Shakespeare’s works (1632) reprints the paratextual material of the first edition, but also adds three new poems that further expand the circle of those acting as guides to the volume’s readers. “Upon the Effigies of my worthy Friend, the Author Master William Shakespeare, and his Workes” is an anonymous poem which encourages spectators to turn away from the stage and look to books for a more genuine experience: “Spectator, this Lifes Shaddow is; To see / The truer image and a livelier he / Turne Reader” (sig. A5r). The third poem, “On Worthy Master Shakespeare and his Poems,” contains a striking description of Shakespeare’s rebirth through (and into) the book. The man and his works merge on the page, as, having shed his mortal coil, Shakespeare has slipped into paper clothes:

    […] death may destroy
    They say his body, but his verse shall live
    And more than nature takes, our hands shall give.
    In a lesse volumne, but more strongly bound
    Shakespeare shall breathe and speake, with Laurell crown'd
    Which never fades. Fed with Ambrosian meate
    In a well-lyned vesture rich and neate.
    So with this robe they cloath him, bid him weare it
    For time shall never staine, nor envy teare it. (sig. *1v) [8]

    The success of the first editions of Shakespeare’s collected plays resides partly in the fact that they are a celebration of the book. But it also resides in the fact that even if the order installed by those who produced the first folio of Shakespeare’s works is everywhere apparent, the fate of the volume relied on its readers, whose freedom was perhaps greater because no authorial voice was seeking to establish its authority over the text. That is, readers’ freedom of interpretation would have been more limited had Shakespeare been alive or had he been, as some authors were, possessive about his own writings and nervous about their reception as printed literature.

  22. One can still sense a measure of ambivalence in the paratextual material of Shakespeare’s first folio. In the lines they address “To the great Variety of Readers,” Heminges and Condell claim that the appraisal of the work is a task best left to its readers: “But it is not our prouince, who onely gather his works, and giue them you, to praise him. It is yours that reade him” (sig. A3r). Nevertheless, they also gently seek to sway their readers’ opinions: “know, these Playes haue had their triall alreadie, and stood out all Appeales.” While they do not impose a meaning on the text, they consider that it deserves to be understood adequately: “And if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to vnderstand him.” (sig. A3r).

  23. Yet the slightly humorous phrasing here appears to indicate that reception was not their real concern. Heminges and Condell seem more worried about the commercial success of the publishing venture—which was certainly not guaranteed—than about its critical reception. Indeed, in their opening lines, they are ready to give readers their freedom of interpretation as long as the book is actually bought: “Well! It is now publique, & you wil stand for your priuiledges wee know: to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first” (sig. A3r).

  24. Here was a collected volume of plays that made few apologies for its contents and that openly celebrated the printing and reading of plays. While those who produced the first folio were constructing Shakespeare the playwright as a literary author, they also had enough confidence, it seems, to entrust their prospective readers with the task of making the book not only critically and culturally, but also financially successful. More than two decades later, in a volume inspired by the success of Shakespeare’s first and second folios—the Comedies and Tragedies (1647) of Beaumont and Fletcher—James Shirley thought it prudent to write in an epistle to the reader: “Reade, and feare not thine owne understanding” (sig. A3v). By the time Shirley was writing, and partly thanks to the publication of the first and second folios of Shakespeare’s works, it appears that a space of interpretative freedom had been negotiated for play readers within the order of books.


[1] Editor’s insert to clarify Keats’s truncated wording.

[2] These figures take into account all successive editions of single playbooks and of collected works, as successive editions can vary in their paratext. Prefaces “To the reader” began to appear in playbooks during the 1550s. The DEEP database does not give figures for plays published after 1660.

[3] See also Smith 199.

[4] Thomas Heywood also complained that his play The Golden Age was “thrust naked into the world” (sig. A2). This work of conservation is particularly apparent in “The Aucthors conclusion to the Reader,” a paratext in Henry Goldwell’s The Entertainment of the French Ambassadors which claims that the book is there as a compensation for those who were unable to see the show: “Thvs haue I (good Reader) according to my simple skill set forth this singuler pastime that thou maiest, beeing farre off, peraduenture knowe more, then they that were present and eye beholders of the same” (sig. C2v).

[5] For a critique of Foucault’s author function, see Compagnon 54-55.

[6] On transactional objects, see: Appadurai (passim) and Knappett 45. Gérard Genette also writes that the paratext is “a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public” (2).

[7] See Jowett 64-65.

[8] The poem is signed “I.M.S.,” which is possibly an abbreviation for “In Memoriam Scriptoris,” an expression recalling Ben Jonson’s “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author… .” A commendatory poem in William Cartwright’s Comedies, Tragicomedies, With other Poems describes a similar transformation: “Live on ; / Being return'd in a more happy Dress, / Cloath'd with Ubiquity by this one Press” (sig. *2v).


Works Cited



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© 2013-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).