Dateless bargains:

The undated Quartos of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet


Eric Rasmussen

Dates, the Mad Hatter tells us, are very important. For early English printers and publishers the date of publication was arguably the most important feature of a book. Title-pages on play quartos frequently fail to name the dramatist, and the name of the printer or the publisher is often omitted, but the date of publication was apparently considered essential: of the more than one hundred Shakespearean play quartos printed in the seventeenth century only two are undated. These rule-proving exceptions are the fourth quarto of Hamlet (STC 22278) and the fourth quarto of Romeo and Juliet (STC 22325) both of which were printed by William Stansby for the publisher John Smethwick. Recent digital analysis of the progressive deterioration of a printer’s ornament that appears in both Q4 Hamlet and Q4 Romeo and Juliet has established that the two texts were printed in 1621-22. In this essay, I would like to explore the cultural context of that historical moment in Renaissance England when a publisher took the unprecedented step of leaving the dates of the title-pages of these Shakespearean texts.

Any attempt to understand why the dates were left off the fourth quarto title-pages of Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet ought to begin by observing that, in both instances, Shakespeare’s name is featured prominently whereas the date is absent. Indeed, the printing of Romeo & Juliet was apparently stopped when it was noticed that the playwright’s name had been accidentally left off of the title-page. The Huntington Library copy preserves the earlier state and the Bodleian Library in Oxford the later, differing only in the addition of "Written by W. Shakespeare." This stop-press correction of the title-page would have afforded the opportunity to supply the missing date as well; the fact that it does not appear on the "corrected" title-page may be read as a clear indication that the quarto was never intended to bear a date.

Several textual scholars have suggested that the two quartos may have been left undated because of the impending publication of the Shakespeare First Folio in 1623. As Harold Jenkins puts it, "the publishers sought what profit could be had . . . before the projected Shakespeare Folio came out; and Smethwick’s pair may have omitted the date so as not to prejudice subsequent sales." So too, George Walton Williams argues that "the imminence of the Shakespeare First Folio would explain the desire to present a quarto of Romeo and Juliet which would not soon become dated" (meaning "obsolete"). I would further suggest that the pachydermal progress of the First Folio project may have occasioned Smethwick’s decision to bring out the two quartos when he did. Smethwick was a member of the syndicate of publishers behind the First Folio; perhaps he had been invited to join the cartel because he owned the copyrights to Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Love’s Labor’s Lost, and The Taming of a Shrew. The colophon on the last page of the Folio is unusual in that it emphasizes the costs of underwriting the venture: "Printed at the Charges of W. Jaggard, Ed. Blount, I. Smithweeke, and W. Aspley, 1623." We know very little about the planning stages of the Folio. It may be that Shakespeare’s friends were planning an authorized collection of his plays when they got wind of Pavier’s plans in 1619, or perhaps they got the idea from Pavier. Although there is some dispute about exactly when printing began, the First Folio was clearly expected to be on the market by mid-1622. The principal center of the European book-trade, then as now, was the fair held every spring and autumn in Frankfurt; a half-yearly advertisement known as the Mess-Katalog was published in conjunction with the fair. The "Catalogue of such Bookes as haue beene published, and (by authoritie) printed in English, since the last Vernam Mart, which was in Aprill 1622 till this present October 1622" contains the entry "Playes written by mr William Shakespeare, all in one volume, printed by Isaack Iaggard, in fol." In the event, however, the Folio did not actually appear until very late in 1623. Charlton Hinman’s reconstruction of the events in the Jaggard printing-house has demonstrated that most of the comedies were printed late in 1621 or early in 1622, after which work on the Folio was unaccountably suspended, and the tragedies were not machined until the summer of 1623.

A folio devoted entirely to plays was unprecedented and involved considerable economic risk. The players, who owned the rights to the plays that had not been previously published, were probably paid a fixed amount, as were stationers outside the syndicate for the rights to still other plays. The Shakespeare Folio ultimately proved successful and was reprinted in a second edition by Smethwick and others in 1632. But this outcome was by no means assured back in 1621/22 when the project, already behind schedule, had ground to a halt with only a third of the plays printed.

Smethwick was not a major publisher. In 1620, he published only two books: the sixth edition of Nicholas Breton’s A poste with a madd packet of letters (STC 3689) and the third issue of the sixth edition of Drayton’s Poems (STC 7223). In 1621, he again published two books: the second edition of Breton’s The Mother’s Blessing (STC 3670) and the eighth edition of Thomas Smith’s De republica Anglorum (STC 22864). In each instance, Smethwick was reprinting a text that he had published before. Peter Blayney has pointed out that such reprintings were particularly profitable for a publisher because expenses would no longer include the price of the manuscript or the original costs of license and registration. Smethwick’s output suggests that he relied upon the income that could be generated on an annual basis by republishing two or three of the texts to which he owned the rights. So it is of some interest that there is no record of any text published by Smethwick in 1622. Perhaps he had put all of his eggs into the First Folio basket. Or perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps the undated quartos were his two republished texts for 1622.

Smethwick would have been expecting a substantial return on his Folio investment in 1622 and may have suffered a certain amount of financial hardship because of the delays. Perhaps he decided to capitalize on the renewed interest in Shakespeare generated by the advance publicity for the Folio by bringing out quarto reprints of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in the spring of 1622. Other Shakespearean reprints also appeared in this year — Q6 of Richard III and Q6 of 1 Henry IV — apparently intended to fill the void left by the unforthcoming First Folio. (The fact that Smethwick did not reprint the two comedies in which he held the copyright, The Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labour’s Lost, might suggest that the members of the Folio syndicate were contemplating cutting their losses by simply bringing out a collection of Shakespeare’s Comedies, the folio sheets of which had already been printed.)

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, there was a thriving industry devoted to reprinting his plays: Richard II, Richard III, and Henry IV Part 1, for instance, were each reprinted five times in quarto between the years 1597 and 1615. Remarkably, there was not a single Shakespearean play published in the three years following the dramatist’s death in 1616. When reprints began to appear once again in the years immediately prior to the publication of the First Folio, the dates on the title-pages are often bizarre. In 1619, Thomas Pavier, who owned the rights to several history plays, reprinted a number of Shakespeare’s works including The First Part of the Contention and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, which were joined together with a common title The Whole Contention, along with Q3 Pericles, Q2 The Merry Wives of Windsor, Q2 The Merchant of Venice, Q2 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Q2 King Lear, and Q3 Henry V. The supposition that these individual quartos were intended to be bound together to form a collection of Shakespeare’s plays is encouraged by the signatures which are continuous from The Whole Contention through Pericles.

The King’s Men apparently heard about Pavier’s planned collection and invoked the protection of authority. On May 3, 1619, the Court of the Stationers’ Company had before it a letter from the Lord Chamberlain, whereupon it was ordered that in the future "no plays that his majesty’s players do play" should be printed without the consent of the King’s Men. It seems that press-work was already completed on a number of Pavier’s texts, which are correctly dated "1619," but the question was what to do with the plays yet to be printed. Sir Walter Greg suggested that since "it was no longer safe to put the current date on the titles . . . it was decided that the dates on the titles should be those of the editions that were being reprinted, so that if necessary the reprints could be passed off as copies of the same, or at any rate as twin editions of the same date." So Pavier’s quartos of King Lear and Henry V were dated "1608," and The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were dated "1600."

Even though Smethwick had clearly established his copyright to Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet, it might have been prudent to be somewhat circumspect about reprinting the plays in the wake of the Stationers’ order. Using false dates on the imprints of the title-pages as Pavier had done would have been one possibility; but leaving the dates off altogether would have afforded Smethwick what the twentieth century might call plausible deniability, a means by which the publisher could exercise his legitimate right to reproduce these texts while at the same time not running afoul of the authorities.

Interestingly, the printer as well as the publisher had reason to be cautious in early 1622. Although William Stansby was at the forefront of early seventeenth-century printers — having published works by the leading theologians, philosophers, and poets of the age including the prestigious folios of Richard Hooker’s Laws (1611), Samuel Purchas’s survey of religions and cultures Purchas his Pilgrimage (1613), Sir Walter Ralegh’s monumental History of the World (1614), the first volume of William Camden’s important Annals (1615), and the groundbreaking edition of Ben Jonson’s Workes (1616) — he ran into trouble in early 1622 for printing two pamphlets for the publisher Nathaniel Butter critical of the Emperor Ferdinand II in Bohemia. In April of 1622, Butter was incarcerated and Stansby’s presses were broken up and his shop forcibly closed. A month later, Butter sent a petition to Sir George Calvert, the secretary of state, in which he acknowledges his fault in "printing the book concerning the Emperor" and asks to be released from custody. At a somewhat later date, Stansby also petitioned Calvert, claiming that he had printed the pamphlets only at "the earnest persuasion and instigation of Nathaniel Butter, bookseller," and complaining that under a warrant from the state, the wardens of the Stationers’ Company had dismantled his presses and nailed up the doors of his warehouses and printing house. He closes by asking that he be forgiven and his presses restored to him.

Early 1622 was clearly a historical moment in early modern England in which the combined forces of the bookselling market and pressures from authority had created a climate in which a publisher and a printer apparently felt that they had no choice but to take the unprecedented step of leaving the dates off the title-pages of the fourth quarto reprints of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet — a move that was never repeated in the history of the early printing and publishing of Shakespeare’s texts.

© Dr. Eric Rasmussen
University of Nevada, USA

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