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When Ben Jonson first emerged as a playwright at the end of Elizabeth's reign, the English printing and bookselling trade that would preserve his texts for posterity was still a relatively small industry. The broad complex of continental printing houses and book distribution networks provided most of the classical-language texts for the domestic market, leaving the London printers to supply mainly English-language works. Periodic decrees limiting the number of master printers and working presses, complaints about lack of work from printers and journeymen, and attempts by some stationers to loosen the monopoly on profitable titles held by a small group of favourites reveal an often-struggling trade where a few prospered while most barely managed from year to year. In the bookstalls, religious materials dominated the market – bibles, catechisms, works of instruction and devotion – along with smaller amounts of history, philosophy, law, husbandry, science, and education. Drama, almanacs, and other such ‘riffe raffe’ books, famously banned by Sir Thomas Bodley from his library, played a small role in the economics of the early modern book trade.
During Jonson's lifetime, the number of small-format, single-work editions of plays, masques, pageants, and entertainments published in any one year fluctuated significantly, but rarely reached sustained levels of popularity. Between 1580 and 1593, only occasionally were more than five new or reprinted plays issued for sale in one year, and during some years no new play quartos were printed at all. Interest in drama then appeared to rise, but only sporadically; in 1594, 1599, 1600, and 1602 at least fifteen new editions appeared, while five or fewer were printed in 1596, 1597, and 1603. Peter Blayney (1997, 386) speculates that the jump in production around 1594 correlates with the opening of the theatres after a plague visitation, while the cause of the rise around 1600 is less certain. For the first ten years of James I's reign the publication of theatrical texts was somewhat steadier, with between ten and twenty-three new or reprinted editions issued annually. From that point popularity of play quartos dropped until 1627, when only one appeared in the bookstalls, the school drama Apollo Shroving by William Hawkins (STC 12963). In the last years before the English Civil War, the market for drama expanded radically, with especially large production totals in 1631 and 1640.
The early quartos
Responsibility for the publication of Jonson's works during his lifetime tended to cluster around a small group of stationers. For the years leading up to the printing of the 1616 folio Works, Walter Burre and his sometime collaborator Thomas Thorpe acquired control over the majority of Jonson's plays and masques. Burre, who during his twenty-five-year career published a number of literary and historical works, owned or bought from others the rights to seven plays, as follows:
Every Man In His Humour, entered to Burre and Cuthbert Burby 14 August 1600 (Arber 3.169). Burby's share was transferred to William Welby 16 October 1609 (Arber 3.421).
The Fountain of Self-Love [Cynthia's Revels], entered to Burre 23 May 1601 (Arber 3.185).
Sejanus, entered to Edward Blount 2 November 1604 (Arber 3.273), transferred to Thorpe from Blount 6 August 1605 (Arber 3.297), and then transferred to Burre from Thorpe 3 October 1610 (Arber 3.445).
Volpone, with no initial SR entry; the 1607 Q1 title-page imprint reads, ‘Printed for Thomas Thorpe’; transferred to Burre from Thorpe 3 October 1610 (Arber 3.445).
Catiline, with no initial SR entry; the 1611 Q1 title-page imprint reads, ‘Printed for Walter Burre’.
Epicene, entered to John Browne and John Busby 20 September 1610 (Arber 3.444), transferred to Burre from Browne 28 September 1612 (Arber 3.498).
The Alchemist, entered to Burre 3 October 1610 (Arber 3.445).
Thomas Thorpe was also responsible for a number of literary works during his career, and owned the rights to the following:
Eastward Ho!, entered to Thorpe and William Aspley 4 September 1605 (Arber 3.300).
Hymenaei, with no initial Stationers’ Register entry; the 1611 Q1 title-page imprint reads, ‘Printed by Valentine Sims for Thomas Thorpe’.
The Masques of Blackness and of Beauty, entered to Thorpe 21 April 1608 (Arber 3.375).