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Reflection on early modern printing

Abi, Ellie, Leanne, Soso, Raveena & Sophie

As a group we learned many things about early modern printing and the printing of the first folio. While all of us carry around books on a day to day basis, we’d never really considered the complexities that go into making them, especially for early modern printers in regards to folios and quartos – folding paper in the lecture was hard enough for us so it really brought an appreciation to the process. One of the most interesting things we also considered as a group was when we considered what was in Shakespeare’s first folio in comparison to what had previously been published. Shakespeare’s first folio contained around 18 new plays, including Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale, which was surprising considering those are two of his best known plays. 

Something we also found surprising was that, though the paratext claimed Shakespeare’s folio was complete, and that all other copies of his plays were pirated (“stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed”), the catalogue was actually incomplete. Troilus and Cressida does not appear in the catalogue but is included at the very end of the folio, which suggests there may have been an issue with getting the printing rights for the play, and so it was added in at the end just before the folio was published. The folio does not include the plays Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen, perhaps for the same reason, or possibly because these plays were created in collaboration with other writers. 

Learning how to interpret the paratextual content for various collections, such as The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which we looked at in the Robinson Library, has enabled us as a group to understand early modern printing on a deeper level. The paratext in early modern books was often used for different purposes: to introduce the text, market the book, and provide information on the publisher. Moreover, in our study of early printed works, we also examined annotations placed in the margins of primary material, which sometimes alluded to ideas of censorship or previous ownership. We learnt that all of this information, which we sometimes overlook as readers, is vital to our understanding and interpretation of many older texts. 

By observing secondary sources on paratexts, such as the documentary ‘The Secret Life of Books’, which shows how the language in the paratext of Shakespeare’s first folio was most likely a marketing ploy due to its use of imperatives and emphatic language, we have discovered just how influential the prefatory material can be. The documentary also suggested that Shakespeare’s works weren’t entirely his, but made in collaboration with others. This came as quite a surprise, since the general impression of Shakespeare was that he was responsible for all of his work.

As a group, our approach to reading has changed dramatically. The importance of examining source texts in great detail, with a thorough approach, is now something we all wish to take onboard for each of our different modules. Our long term goal is to approach each new text with great scrutiny, considering the meaning and hidden clues behind paratexts. After learning the intricate and time-consuming process behind the ‘moveable type’, which enabled us to have access to so many of Shakespeare’s plays, we are now even more appreciative of early printed works. This module has taught us how to interpret older – and even newer – texts but also the value of the early printing process.

The production of early modern books & Their paratexts

Soso Ayika, Sophie Hamilton, Abi Dickson, Ellie Simmonite, Raveena Mehta, Leanne Francis

The first printing press in England was set up in 1476 by William Caxton. Its arrival enabled English printers to publish the early works of writers in quarto and folio form.

There were various stages involved in the publication of an early modern text. At the time, publishing industries consisted of printers, compositors, stationers, and publishers, each contributing to different stages of the printing process.

Printers manufactured the physical book, compositors worked the press, stationers bound and covered the pages, and publishers paid stationers license fees and provided printers with paper.

During the 1550s, some printers rose to popularity for their impressive craftsmanship and skillfulness. Christopher Moretus, a Frenchman who worked as a printer-publisher in Antwerp, was well known for his printing. At the height of his career, Plantin printed around 50 texts a year on at least 16 different presses. His work was symbolised by a golden compass around which the words ‘labore et constantia’ were written, meaning ‘work and persistency’.

Producing an early modern text required different tools.

Letters would be cut using files and chisels, with unreachable parts being removed by a negative punch. The punch creates the matrix in which the type was cast, then placed on a tray, inked and pressed onto paper.”

The printed pages were proof-read for mistakes made in production, such as incorrect grammar, punctuation or spelling, and would then be corrected.

Once this process was complete, the text would be ready for print.

Close Reading of Paratext:

The Discoverie of Witchcraft title page is useful as it tells us the original owner of the book (Cuthbert Cockson) and tells us who the book was dedicated to. Throughout the text we see various examples of what looks like people practicing their handwriting, which suggests a lack of access to paper. We also see notes handwritten at the side of some of the pages whereby one of the owners of the book can make comments about it and express their opinions. 

Helen Smith noted that scholars of the early modern period have questioned the historical authority of the author, arguing that “textual production was a substantially more collaborative process than is assumed by post-Romantic notions of the solitary genius” [Smith, P.8]. So essentially, paratexts are inevitable and will entail some sort of collaborative process be it from the printer, binder or reader themself.

Shakespeare and his contemporaries

In regards to Shakespeare’s collaboration there are two key strands which can be focused on. Firstly is Shakespeare’s immediate and direct collaborator, The Chamberlain’s Men acting company which consists of 8-12 senior members and beneath these 2-4 apprentice boys. Not only does the acting troupe possess a financial hold over performances through shares but their role itself, by interpreting Shakespeare’s written word in their performances is open to be viewed as collaborative.

Beyond this though is the social network of playwrights and authors writing both at the same time as Shakespeare but also in the past. Some of Shakespeare’s main competitors and potentially collaborators included Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and John Lyly.

Clare references how “Shakespeare’s plays are not separable from other plays in circulation” (Clare, 18), going on to suggest that writings should be viewed “on a circularity rather than linearity” spectrum as they can influence and affect one another at any point in time (18). Not only is this a concept supported by Seneca’s bee theory, which suggests within our works people should “sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading” and apply it but can also be seen through both Shakespeare’s works and his competitors alike (Seneca 277, 278, 279). 

There is a distinction between intertextuality and influence here though as Shakespeare responds with intertextuality while the example of his competitor is influenced. 

Shakespeare, for example, responds to John Lyly’s Galatea by adopting its formula of a “non-naturalistic comed[y], with […] mythological and human characters”  within A Midsummer Nights Dream (123). From their shared woodland setting to their inclusion of Gods within their plots there are clear parallels which can be drawn between the two texts, demonstrating one text’s shaping by another. Alternatively though texts can instead influence one another, with Shakespeare in this different instance acting as a source of inspiration for writers as John Webster includes Shakespeare in his preface to The White Devil 1612 printed by Nicholas Okes for Thomas Archer. Webster regards that  “lastly (without wrong last to be named) the right happy and copious industry of M. Shake-speare, M. Decker,& M. Heywood, wishing what I write may be read by their light:” (Webster, Folger Shakespeare Library), demonstrating Shakespeare’s influence and his role as a source of inspiration but not his work being used intertextually. That is not to suggest that these are the only examples of this though as influence and intertextuality in a broad range of instances.  

It appears that the key writers featured in Clare’s essays were potentially more prone to specialising in a specific genre – Marlowe focused a lot on tragedy, whilst Lyly and Jonson wrote mostly comedy. 


Clare, Janet. Shakespeare’s Stage Traffic: Imitation, Borrowing and Competition in Renaissance Theatre (CUP, 2014) pp. 18

Seneca the younger, Epistles vol 2, transl. Gummere (Loeb: 1920) pp. 277-279

Webster, John. “The White Devil: John Webster refers to Shakespeare by name in his dedication (1612).” Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare Documented, May 25th 2017, Accessed 15 Oct. 2019

Abi Dickson, Ellie Simmonite, Soso Ayika, Sophie Hamilton, Raveena Mehta, Leanne Francis