Collecting Histories

In last month’s blog, Amy Lidster looked at how printed playbooks define and market ‘history’ as a dramatic genre. As a follow-up, this month’s blog concentrates on the readers of plays, asking what their collecting practices might suggest about the history play, its uses, and its parameters.

bl sammelbande 2 - ed

Figure 1: Manuscript contents list (seventeenth century) interposed between Antonio’s Revenge and Gorboduc in an eighteenth-century Sammelband (see Figure 2) and indicating an earlier arrangement of plays, The British Library (BL C.21.b.40).


Publishers and booksellers are among the first ‘readers’ of a play [1]. The strategies they use to market a playbook can tell us something about their interpretation of the play and its genre. Stationer Richard Jones played with the flexibility of dramatic genres in classifying Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1590) variously as a comedy, tragedy, and history, and emphasized his own role in streamlining the play for its ‘Gentleman Readers’. Indeed, the influential categorization of Shakespeare’s plays in the First Folio (1623) may have originated with the syndicate of publishers who invested in the venture, rather than with Shakespeare’s former colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell.

The practices of these ‘professional’ readers are particularly significant because they influenced the survival of plays from the early modern stages and the refashioning of these plays as books. But the experiences of private individuals who purchased, collected, and read playbooks are also important to consider. I am interested in whether a study of private readers can help us understand the early modern history play and how it was defined and used during the period. Can the collecting practices of these varied readers (some of whom might not have actually read all of their playbooks) offer a way of approaching the history play?

During the early modern period, most short publications (including playbooks) were sold unbound. When prospective buyers browsed the London bookstalls, they leafed through printed texts that were stab-stitched – that is, the folded and arranged sheets were loosely stitched together, rather than being ready-bound as books. It was up to buyers to decide how to bind their books, a process which often involved the selection and arrangement of different short publications into one volume. Such volumes containing separately prepared texts are called Sammelbände and they offer an insight into the buying and collecting practices of early readers, including how the individual texts within a volume might have been interpreted by their owners.

Can Sammelbände help us understand the history play and the ways in which readers might have drawn connections between plays dramatizing different historical pasts? Possibly – although the arrangement of plays in collections offers the potential for a wide range of interpretations. It can also be difficult to trace the provenance of playbooks and how they were bound by their early owners. Some sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Sammelbände are still preserved, but many have been broken up, their constituent texts dispersed and often rebound individually. This is frequently the case when the Sammelband has included a text by Shakespeare. The value that Shakespeare’s works have accrued over the past four centuries has accelerated the break-up of Sammelbände containing early editions of his texts, or has led to the excision of Shakespeare’s works from bound volumes. For example, The British Library preserves an eighteenth-century Sammelband (BL C.21.b.40, see Figure 2), once owned by David Garrick, that features a selection of play editions published between 1573 and 1599 [2]. As indicated by the contents list, the volume once contained an edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles (from 1635), which has been removed and rebound individually (as BL C.34.k.41). Interestingly, the Sammelband still contains a copy of the apocryphal Edward III (in its second edition from 1599), reflecting the play’s uncertain place within Shakespeare’s canon. The volume also features another manuscript list (appearing on the final leaf of Antonio’s Revenge, see Figure 1), which indicates an earlier (seventeenth-century) arrangement of plays and illustrates how readers would reshape and reassess their collections of plays and the interconnections between them.

bl sammelbande 1 - ed

Figure 2: Manuscript contents list (eighteenth century), The British Library (BL C.21.b.40).

Understanding readers’ collecting practices therefore requires piecing together evidence about how plays were once preserved. Records left by one prominent collector – Sir John Harington (bap. 1560, d. 1612) – suggest that his playbooks were bound together in eleven volumes. A manuscript list of plays (dating from c.1609–10) indicates the likely arrangement and it offers a useful case study of an early reader. History plays feature prominently in Harington’s records and their historical subject matter seems to have been a factor in the collection’s organization. As might be expected, history plays that spawned a sequel are listed together: Heywood’s two parts of If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody (listed as ‘Queen Elis.’ and ‘Queen Elis. hobs tawnycoat’) appear in the fourth volume and Shakespeare’s two parts of Henry IV (listed as ‘Henry the fourth: 1’ and ‘Henry the fourth: 2’) appear in the first volume. More significantly, the first volume features other plays that dramatize the past: alongside the two parts of Henry IV are Richard III (‘Richard the 3rd: tragedie’), King Leir (‘King Leire: old’), Locrine (‘Locryne’)and Sejanus (‘Seianus: Ben Johnson’). Shakespeare’s plays that dramatize medieval English history – 1 and 2 Henry IV and Richard III – are grouped together and rearranged in their historical order (rather than their order of composition or publication). Similarly, ancient British history – in the anonymous King Leir and Locrine – are bound consecutively and are followed closely by classical history in Sejanus (interposed by Hamlet, which, interestingly, is described as a ‘Tragical Historie’ in its early quartos of 1603 and 1604). Harington’s collection hardly represents a consistent critical approach to history plays, but it does provide some evidence of a reader gathering together small groups of plays that dramatize the past and arranging them according to the different histories they present – from English and ancient British history to classical history.

harington 2

Figure 3: Detail from the list of plays in Sir John Harington’s papers (c.1609–10), The British Library, Add MS 27632 (fol. 43).

A similar division of history plays can be witnessed in a seventeenth-century composite volume from the Folger Shakespeare Library, which includes a manuscript list of its contents, written on the inside front cover of Coelum Britanicum (1634). It was probably assembled not long after the date of its latest imprint (Catiline, 1635) [3]. The volume consists mainly of classical and English history plays, which are grouped accordingly. The Roman Actor, Catiline, Caesar and Pompey, and Nero appear consecutively, and are followed by plays that feature English history, mostly arranged in chronological order: 1 and 2 The Troublesome Reign of King John (listed as ‘King John of England: first and second part’), Henry IV, Richard III, 1 and 2 Edward IV, and If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody (listed as ‘Queen Elizabeth’). The order is not exactly chronological: historically, Edward IV reigned before Richard III, but the arrangement of the other texts suggests this might be an oversight. As Jeffrey Todd Knight has explored, the grouping of plays reveals an interest in historical leaders and their practices of rule and government [4]. Perhaps this Sammelband encourages the application of historical exempla to questions of leadership and the maintenance of political power.

sammelbande - folger stc 4619

Figure 4: Manuscript contents list appearing inside the front cover of Coelum Britanicum (1634; STC 4619), Folger Shakespeare Library (LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection).

What conclusions can be reached about how early readers engaged with plays dramatizing the past? Surviving marginalia – when they actually relate to a play’s content – occasionally indicate an interest in topical applications (which can be seen in a copy of George Chapman’s Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron (1625), held by The British Library, C.45.b.9). Evidence of collecting practices reveals that readers often selected and ordered their history plays in meaningful ways. Grouping together plays on English history or classical history, for example, suggests a focus on national histories and ideas of collective identity, while intermixing plays that dramatize different national pasts draws attention to shared thematic interests, such as models of monarchical and military leadership.

Of course, the collecting practices of readers are highly individual and encourage a variety of interpretations. It is difficult to offer a specific assessment of the role of history plays in a collection or Sammelband – and readers themselves may not have approached their collections with a clear, critical agenda. Indeed, the habits of readers mirror the idiosyncratic practices of some publishers who classified, ordered, and marketed history plays in a variety of ways. In his ‘Advertisement to the Reader’ (appended to his 1671 catalogue of playbooks), stationer Francis Kirkman suggests that the history play as a genre has a wide scope and requires its readers to take on an active role:

[B]y Playes alone you may very well know the Chronicle History of England, and many other Histories. I could enlarge much on this account, having for my own fancy written down all the Historical Playes in a succinct orderly method, as you may do the like [5].

For Kirkman, as for early play buyers and collectors, the history play incorporates English history and ‘other Histories’, and his account draws attention to the active participation that is involved in reading and collecting these plays. Kirkman assumes that readers will, like him, want to arrange their history plays in a ‘succinct orderly method’. The fact that English history is singled out perhaps suggests that Kirkman is particularly interested in plays that dramatize his own national past (and which seems to exclude Scottish, Welsh, and Irish histories). A similar approach to arranging history plays can be seen in the collections of other early readers. It may be impossible to offer a linear narrative of how individuals ‘read’ these plays, but the fact that their collecting and reading practices are flexible, fluid, multiple, and subject to interpretation perhaps helps us, as critics, to be alert to the variety of ways in which ‘history’ could be understood and used during the period.

Amy Lidster


[1] See Zachary Lesser’s discussion of publishers as readers in Renaissance Drama and the Politics of Publication: Readings in the English Book Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 1-25.

[2] Jeffrey Todd Knight, ‘Making Shakespeare’s Books: Assembly and Intertextuality in the Archives’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 60:3 (2009), 304-340 (pp. 310-12).

[3] Knight, pp. 318-19.

[4] Knight, p. 322.

[5] Kirkman’s advertisement and catalogue of all the plays ‘that were ever yet Printed and Published’ are appended to a translation of Pierre Corneille’s Nicomède (London: 1671; Wing C6315), Sig. A1-B4. The catalogue (without the advertisement) had appeared ten years earlier in 1661.

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