Shakespeare in Bundles

Jeffrey Todd Knight
University of Washington


  1. When Shakespeare scholars refer to a work’s historical context, they posit a largely imaginary relationship between two or more texts or textual categories. There are no first-hand accounts of composition and few of reception—no traces of direct links between, say, The Tempest and travel literature, or between the history plays and Tudor propaganda. Scholars use what is available—archives, in a broad sense—to determine what might be called imagined scenes of reading: Shakespeare at his desk with Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals,” for example, or audience members bringing to the Globe a political understanding derived from the pamphlets, proclamations, and other topical early print materials now in special collections libraries.

  2. In this space I would like to consider some material relationships between texts from early modernity—that is, links and reader associations that are not only imagined, but evident in libraries and editions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Contextual or extrinsic reading challenges any absolute distinction between literature and history,[1] but it also reinforces many of the oppositions that guide traditional intrinsic reading, especially between “text” and “context,” the work of literature as a stable, bounded unit of information against the clamor of external events. Readers in the early modern period had a more complex relationship with books. George Herbert, to take a familiar example, elaborates on the devotional reading experience in The Temple with seemingly peculiar attention to the Bible’s structural makeup, its assembly or compilation: “Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,” he marvels, “And the configurations of their glorie! / Seeing not only how each verse doth shine, / But all the constellations of the story” (“Holy Scriptures (II),” lines 1-4). Herbert’s choice of words and metaphor here turn on the idea of mixture, and in a sense, interactivity: the readerly desire to see into the book’s composition or arrangement. This is an idea that has not, until recently perhaps, been applicable without qualification to books in modernity, even to those as obviously compiled as the Bible. [2] How would “configuration” or “constellation,” in place of “context,” help scholars of early modern culture read historically? What would it tell us about the conditions of intra- and intertextuality in Shakespeare’s time?

  3. In simple terms of application, configuration is the more flexible concept. It lies outside the text-context binary and therefore does not depend on the stability or boundedness of works for meaning any more than early modern readers did. A Shakespearean configuration could be a mixture of narrative events, grammatical units, or other kinds of textual elements in a text by Shakespeare. It could just as easily be a mixture of individual Shakespearean texts in a binding, such as an edition or an early Sammelband.[3] For a culture in which rhetorical copia, imitation, and borrowing defined writing habits, and in which books were often sold unbound—custom-made to order for the reader—configuration in both senses was on display.[4]

  4. Scholars of Shakespearean reception history have begun to discuss the common early modern practice of binding texts together: that is, the preservation of quartos and octavos, and the reduction of costs, by compiling multiple printed works into single volumes at the time of purchase.[5] In the domain of printers and publishers, the legacy of this practice, which goes back as far as incunable culture,[6] can be traced in multi-text configurations that have played a vital role in marketing, and differentiating, Shakespeare’s plays. Producer-initiated bundles—a term that distinguishes them from reader-bound volumes—were abundant in book shops; W.W. Greg showed that printers would often issue unsold stock in nonce collections, or groups of plays printed at different times, as a unit.[7] But the first large-scale Shakespearean bundling project was likely the infamous Pavier Quartos, comprising ten early play texts issued by Thomas Pavier in 1619. The publishing strategy is well known: Pavier spotted a hole in the market and began printing quartos that could be bound together –a few that he owned, a few derelict editions, and then several that were not his property—with the ultimate intention of forming a Collected Works volume.[8] The project was brought to a swift end by the King’s Men when the official Collected Works, the single-volume 1623 Folio anthology, went to press.

  5. The story, of course, is more complicated: as I have shown elsewhere, the Pavier bundles that survive show evidence of varying arrangements, at least two of which included a play not by Shakespeare, Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness (1617), bound side-by-side with the high-canonical Henry V (“Invisible Ink”). Here, I think, it is useful to pause over the “configuration” of such dramatic texts to see the changing historical function of bundling. For Thomas Pavier, like most printers in the hand-press era, combined texts on a principle of inclusion: republishing Henry V (to which he owned the rights) was part of an effort to print many plays (including some owned by others) in flexible, linkable formats, which even admitted non-Shakespearean works, such as Heywood’s. Today’s publishers, in contrast, bundle the same early modern plays on a principle of exclusion. The only multi-text configurations in which Henry V is currently printed are Collected Works such The Norton or Riverside Shakespeare, and outside of instructional environments, the play is most commonly read in single-text editions. But Heywood’s work is made available today almost exclusively in multi-text, multi-author bundles: Oxford’s A Woman Killed with Kindness and other Domestic Plays, for example, or Revels Editions’ Plays on Women. The former groups A Woman Killed With Kindness with the anonymous Arden of Faversham and the collaborative Witch of Edmonton under a rubric of genre, the domestic tragedy;[9] the latter groups the play with Arden of Faversham, Middleton and Dekker’s Roaring Girl, and Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, under a rubric of theme, women. No comparable bundle using Henry V—say, Henry V and other Tudor Histories, or Plays on Patriotism—would be formed under modern systems of publishing. Shakespeare, today, is not commonly mixed into generic or thematic anthologies because author, or authorial corpus, is the near-exclusive organizing concept in his case.

  6. The divergence of modern from early modern attitudes toward text configuration is also visible within individual works, as Herbert’s use of the term indicates. The edition of Henry V owned by Pavier is representative of a kind of marketing based on constellations of events or characters, which was common in the period. Its full title was The Chronicle History of Henry the fift, with his battel fought in Agin Court in France. Together with an-cient Pistoll. The early name of the play in quarto thus mirrored the physical structure of the early quarto volume in which it would, in most cases, have been arranged. The title page, which functioned as an advertisement in the bookshop, presents Henry V as itself a bundle, a com-position in the sense of a provisional unity of “placed-together” elements: in this case, the Battle of Agincourt and the character of Pistol.

  7. This method of presentation is familiar to anyone who has encountered small-format plays by Shakespeare in archives. The early quarto of Richard III, for example, calls the play The Tragedy of King Richard the third. Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his innocent nephewes: his tyrannical usurpation, and so on. Such titles are curious from a modern perspective: they direct the reader’s attention to intra-textual relationships between events and between characters; they open and close paths of interpretation, as other aspects of textual presentation do. (A modern publisher would not think of advertising “the devotion of pitiful Lucky” on the cover of Waiting for Godot, for example.) Long titles, moreover, are sublimated in large-format collections of plays, which were beginning to appear in Shakespeare’s time and which form the basis for modern, single-volume anthologies. The catalog of the 1623 Folio lists The Life of Henry the Fift; modern student editions title the play simply Henry V. Modern text presentation, in this way, distills each work down to a single determining image—sometimes a character, a couple, or a decontextualized event. This is perhaps appropriate in an era of self-enclosed, non-configured (and non-configurable) books. 
  8. What can context mean in Shakespeare studies? Beyond the imagined scenes of reading, which have served historical criticism for three decades now, the notion of a play’s relationship with other plays, other texts, and other aspects of culture—within and outside its ostensible boundaries—can be more expansive, and indeed more historical. George Herbert describes the constellations and configurations of a book, the Bible. Early modern and modern bundles of dramatic material suggest that how texts “combine,” to use Herbert’s word, can direct aspects of interpretation. In one sense, an attention to Shakespearean configurations is a kind of radical historicism, taking the logic of reading in context down to the level of the material book: how real readers met and interpreted Henry V, for example, in the physical, historical contexts of bound volumes. But the same attention yields something like a historical approach to literary form and structure as well—a willingness to see material “configuration” as something that plays itself out, and partly originates, in the combinatory practices of the literary producer. Maybe in this sense, we do have first-hand accounts of composition and reception. We just have not seen them yet.



[1] See Greenblatt and Gallagher for an elaboration of the historicist methodology now dominant in early modern literary studies.

[2] See, for example, Lessig.

[3] On Sammelbände, or early printed multi-text volumes, see Needham, 17-18. Gillespie also provides a useful overview of Sammelband culture in the early Tudor period, focusing on medieval writers.

[4] On “gathering and framing” by writers, see Crane. The literature on copia and imitation is now too vast to recount. The foundational works are those by Cave and Greene, which have been nuanced to take into account vernacular practices of borrowing and what would be called plagiarism today. (See Orgel). On books as unique, customized objects before mechanization, see Pearson.

[5] See Knight, “Making Shakespeare’s Books” on Shakespeare’s poetry and drama, and Lyons on dramatic collections in the period more generally.

[6] On incunabular bundling, see Lewis.

[7] See Greg 2: 679-80. Robinson also provides a comprehensive overview of how nonce collections developed as marketing techniques outside the Shakespearean canon.

[8] For full accounts of this familiar story, see Murphy, ch. 2 and Massai, ch. 4.

[9] The Witch of Edmonton was attributed to Thomas Dekker, William Rowley, and John Ford.


Works Cited



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