The early modern printing process

During the module we’ve had the chance to engage in many aspects of the Early Modern Theatre, one of these has been the printing process of the Renaissance. Having just recently been introduced in England by William Caxton, the printing press quickly became a necessary tool for many daily activities, including the theatre. Plays began to be produced for the population and printed in – what probably would at that time – a large number of copies. In a way, this allowed for the further commercialization of drama, that not only remained a performative art but also became a profitable publishing activity. However, as shown by the Folger Library and other entities, printing during the Renaissance was a wildly different process than modern audiences might imagine. 

Relaying much more on manpower – and as a result suffering more from human error – the printing process began with the organization of individual letters on a press. What would today be quickly accomplished on a computer was instead a much more complex job during the 16th century. Texts were meant to fit within a certain amount of space and this wasn’t always possible or easy to accomplish. Many texts, therefore, would have to receive extensive alteration. This process of what we could now call pagination could then lead to a number of mistakes, either in the form of missing spaces or letters and misspelled words.  

The letters would then be covered in ink, a page would be set on top of them and the entire piece would be inserted in the printing press and the ink transferred through pressure on the page. It may all seem very straightforward now, however, the process could take long amounts of time and could lead to an imperfect of unsellable product: ink could easily be smeared and – if not followed correctly – the page order could cause the entire print to be mistaken. Because printers worked with large pieces of paper, it was necessary to fold them in order to achieve the desired page dimensions. Like shown in the brief activity we completed during lecture, this folding would cause the folded pages to be in the right order, but this order was not reflected any more ones the paper was once more unfolded and spread out for the print: pages would be printed in reverse and in different orders. 

Another important aspect that came to light during the discussion on the printing press was the author’s role in the production of his works. Whilst some authors – like Ben Jonson – were involved in the production of his Folio, others –like Shakespeare, in fact – were not. Shakespeare’s First Folio was in fact published posthumously by a few members of the King’s Men. Similarly, many theatre companies and groups were the only ones to own the complete version of plays (actors having only received their parts and cues) and as such, appear to have been the ones to “own the rights” to those texts. We see, then, that the author may not have been involved in the printing process of their texts. This has to severely alter our approach to the study of these sources since we have to keep in mind that the final product we have in our hands – and it may well be the only copy available – was not necessarily moderated by the author but rather passed through the editing hands of theatre companies, editors and printer, all of whom may have altered it. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *