Forever in print, or: Notes on printing and publishing at the time of the Bard

Martin Luther Printing Publishing Shakespeare Shakespeare400

Words by Charlotte Guest, Publishing Officer at UWA Publishing. 

It is difficult to overstate Shakespeare’s influence on language and popular culture. After a while it becomes hard to tune him out; he’s on screen, in political speeches, in marketing campaigns, on The Simpsons. You try to escape, slither back into your pre-Shakespearean world for a moment; huddle up in front of a Disney film. Then someone pipes up, ‘Did you know The Lion King is based on Hamlet?’ This man, it seems, single-handedly changed the course of Western popular imagination. He gave us new words with which to express ourselves; characters that have proven immortal; thoughts on love and death that remain relevant.


But then a thought occurred to me: how much of Shakespeare’s ubiquity can be attributed to the relatively new printing practices of the sixteenth century?


It seems a happy coincidence for Shakespeare that he was writing during a time when the printing press and early ‘mass media’ was causing remarkable societal change throughout Western civilisation. A new book by Andrew Pettegree argues that the Protestant Reformation can in fact be traced back to Martin Luther and the printing press. Printing, Pettegree says, was what distinguished the otherwise mundane events that lead to the Reformation from commonplace theological disputes. This was in Germany in 1517, merely 47 years before Shakespeare’s birth.


I don’t purport to have the answer to the question I pose. Is Shakespeare’s longevity indebted to the rapidly advancing technology of the printing press? I don’t know. I suspect not. Shakespeare was far from the only playwright of this era, and yet it is his name that plays upon our lips. Instead my research (light and playful as it was) plucked at some other interesting tidbits about printing, paper and book production of the era.


In Shakespeare, In Fact, Irvin Leigh Matus talks about the fate of many Shakespeare’s plays and those of his contemporaries: the oven. Apparently it was customary to put old paper under pies while they were baking, supposedly to catch the fat, and that many literary holographs fell victim to the humble pie. Another common fate suffered by manuscripts was, somewhat ironically, bolstering other books. Recycled paper was often used for bookbinding.


During Shakespeare’s time the Worshipful Company of Stationers was at its most powerful. The Company was a guild of printers and booksellers that came under royal charter, and which regulated production, protected the rights of its member, and acted as a middleman through which the government controlled the press. They held a monopoly over the whole publishing process, controlling book production and distribution. This was a moment of great activity in printing and media that would be remembered largely for the famous King James translation of the Bible vernacular English.


Yet, much like now, publishing play scripts was not common in the sixteenth century. Having the plays available as texts could diminish their profitability as stage performances. According to various sources publishers could obtain handwritten copies of the play from actors, or attempt to transcribe the play while at the theatre. During his lifetime, unreliable quartos (single sheets of paper folded twice to form eight pages) of his plays were circulated, however it wasn’t until 1623, seven years after his death, that The First Folio appeared. A folio was a larger format where the paper was folded once to form four pages; they were expensive, collectable editions.


None of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts survives. We know his plays from the quartos and First Folio, of which approximately 750 were printed and 233 survive. Without the First Folio in particular we would not have Macbeth, Anthony & Cleopatra, All’s Well, As You Like It, and The Tempest. An article on The Conversation traces some of the weird and wonderful travels of the First Folios, one having been pilfered from Durham University by a eccentric man who delivered the folio to Washington DC’s Folger Shakespeare Library on horseback, wearing all white, reciting lines from Richard III. This was in 2008.


Without the printing technologies of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries it is unlikely we would be in possession of Shakespeare’s 36 plays. It’s perhaps a step too far, however, to pin his success upon those technologies, because it’s not the fact of their survival that we marvel at, it’s the writing.



Reading List 

  4. Pettegree, Andrew. Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned his Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe – and Stared the Protestant Reformation. Penguin Random House, 2016.
  5. Matus, Irvin Leigh. Shakespeare, In Fact. Dover Publications, 2012. 
  6. Every essay penned by Stephen Greenblatt.



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