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“What’s in a name?”: Was William Shakespeare popular during his lifetime?

It’s 1608. You are passing by the bookstall of the publisher Thomas Pavier on Cornhill, a stone’s throw from the elegant colonnades of London’s Royal Exchange, when something catches your eye: a sensational play dramatising a series of real-life gruesome domestic murders. A Yorkshire Tragedy has that enticing whiff of scandal about it, but what persuades you to part with your hard-earned cash is seeing the dramatist’s name proudly emblazoned on the title-page: “Written by W. Shak[e]speare”. But you have been duped.

Pavier had published this play with a false authorial attribution. It is not now believed to be by Shakespeare, but the fact that it was marketed as such tells us something about the selling-power attached to his name by this point in his career.

Shakespeare’s early printed plays did not capitalise on his public identity in their title-pages. More often than not it was the name of the playing company—normally derived from the title of the nobleman who was its patron—that received top billing, allowing the publisher to make the most of the prestige which radiated from the likes of the “right Honourable” Earl of Pembroke or the Lord Hunsdon, who was Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord Chamberlain. Shakespeare’s own popularity would therefore largely have been bound up with that of the theatrical troupes to which he had become attached.

Shakespeare did, however, make something of a splash on his own account in 1593 when his most successful printed work during his lifetime was published by fellow Stratfordian Richard Field: the narrative poem Venus and Adonis. This ran through a total of ten editions before his death. In 1594 a second long poem, The Rape of Lucrece, appeared in print and would be graced by a total of six editions by 1616. The immense popularity of the narrative poems has led many scholars to argue that, during his own age, Shakespeare was primarily known first and foremost as a poet. The copious praises showered on these verses by contemporaries might seem at first to bear this out. For instance, in his Palladis Tamia of 1598, Francis Meres exclaimed rapturously that “the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared Sonnets.”

Title page of the first quarto of Love’s Labours Lost. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Meres, however, had been equally enthusiastic about Shakespeare as “the most excellent” author of both comedies and tragedies. Around half of Shakespeare’s plays were published during his lifetime. It’s true to say that arguably his most popular play, Henry IV, Part 1—with its raucous cowardly knight Falstaff, who helped sell a sequel in the form of Henry IV, Part 2, and a comic spin-off, The Merry Wives of Windsor—was not as saleable as Venus and Adonis, running to a total of six editions. However, a valuable survey by Lukas Erne on “The Popularity of Shakespeare in Print,” calculates the total number of editions of the plays during the dramatist’s lifetime. The results are surprising. There were 45 editions of Shakespeare’s theatrical works by 1616. This is more than double the total number of editions of his poems, even if we include publisher William Jaggard’s The Passionate Pilgrim, which included pirated poems by Shakespeare as well as verses plagiarised from other poets but attributed to him. Perhaps not coincidentally this was published only a year after Shakespeare’s name first started to appear on the title pages to some of his plays—with a name-check on reprints of Richard II, Richard III and Love’s Labour’s Lost—suggesting that Jaggard may have been as influenced by Shakespeare’s popularity as a dramatist as much as by his reputation as a poet.

Indeed, before the playwright’s death the rate of title-page ascriptions to him far outstripped those notched up by any of the other theatrical heavyweights of the period—including Ben Jonson and Thomas Dekker—sometimes by more than double. By the mid-point in his career “Shakespeare” was becoming a name to conjure with, and by the turn of the century, as Erne reveals, his published works represented an extraordinary 4% of the total number of printed books issued in 1600. This is a sizeable slice of the market for one author. Shakespeare’s name was clearly shifting publishers’ stock.

Of course you can’t please them all. Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s Men weren’t, it appears, popular with everyone. In 1596 the company’s attempts to open a brand-new indoor theatre in the Blackfriars district of London were thwarted by 30 angry neighbours who were less than pleased at the prospect of a “common playhouse” on their doorstep. Led by the redoubtable self-styled dowager Countess Elizabeth Russell, this stunning act of early nimbyism proved successful and forced the players into a new venture, the Globe. In 1599 Shakespeare became a sharer and, in effect, part-owner of a playhouse on Bankside with a seating capacity of at least 3000, and was entitled to reap 10% of the profits to boot. Such figures indicate that we might be underestimating the extent of his popularity if we take into account his presence on the London book stalls alone.

Shakespeare’s career received a further boost in 1603 when the Chamberlain’s Men were accorded the honour of royal patronage, becoming the King’s Men. This significantly added to the theatrical troupe’s public status and increased the opportunities for court performances. By the end of 1608 they had also re-acquired the Blackfriars Theatre. As this was an indoor playhouse, unlike the open-air Globe, the company could now play all year round to even greater numbers. While playwrights like Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Middleton had, during their lifetimes, box-office hits which surpassed any recorded runs of individual plays by Shakespeare, the latter’s numerous business dealings and investments—including New Place, famously the second largest house in Stratford; the Blackfriars Gatehouse, a building close to the indoor playhouse; not to mention his stake in two theatres—indicate that he was popular enough with audiences and theatrical professionals to have carved out a career which allowed him to acquire a respectable, even considerable, level of wealth.

Popularity, however, doesn’t necessarily just mean getting paying customers through the playhouse doors. Shakespeare’s collected plays appeared in 1623 in a lavish Folio edition, now known as the ‘First Folio’. This was not a book for every purse. Works in this larger format were expensive luxury items and normally reserved for weighty legal, religious and historiographical tomes, or for revered classical texts. Those who put the First Folio together were therefore making a statement about Shakespeare’s cultural value as a literary figure which went beyond mass appeal alone. Ultimately though, in doing so, they ensured that his popularity would be, in the eulogising words of Ben Jonson which preface the volume, “not of an age, but for all time.”

So, what’s in a name? Well, when it comes to assessing Shakespeare’s popularity, it seems a great deal. But in the crowded market for plays in a Renaissance England buzzing with theatrical talent, this can only ever tell half the story.

Featured image credit: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies or The First Folio. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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