Det. 1.2. Shakespeare, The Lord Chamberlain


"...And he by death departed from that right..."


“It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been wished, that the Author himself had liv'd to have set forth, and overseen his own writings; but since it hath bin ordain'd otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envy his Friends, the office of their care, and paine, to have collected & publish'd them; and so to have publish'd them, as where (before) you were abus'd with diverse stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors, that expos'd them: even those, are now offer'd to your view cur'd, and perfect of their limbs”.

Heminges and Condell, from the epistle to the readers


  The epistle tells us Shakespeare could not oversee the folio edition as death robbed him of that possibility, and most readers have understood this to be a confirmation of the statement in the dedication that Shakespeare did not have "the fate to execute" his writings.  As we have shown in the preceding chapter, according to the logic of the dedication's language, Shakespeare was prevented from editing his own works in his lifetime not by death, but by his status as a courtier. The two verbs,  "to execute" in the dedication, and "to oversee" in the epistle (each borrowed from testamentary language), denote different functions. 

It is only reasonable to conclude (especially in light of other distinctions of tone and content we have observed between the two parts of the preface), that by using a different verb and metaphor the author(s) of the dedication and the epistle intended to convey a different meaning in the two parts of the preface, respectively.   In the will of Augustine Phillips, an actor and shareholder in Shakespeare’s company, we find that there are appointed an executrix and overseers [emphases are ours]: “And I ordain and make the said Anne Phillips, my loving wife, sole executrix of this my present testament and last will, provided always that if the said Anne my wife do at any time marry after my decease, that then and from thenceforth she shall cease to be any more longer executrix of this my last will and testament. And that then and from thenceforth John Hemminges, Richard Burbage, William Slye and Timothy Whitehorne shall be fully and wholly my executors of this my last will and testament, as though the said Anne had never been named. And of the execution of this my present testament  and last will I ordain and make the said John Hemminges, Richard Burbage, William Slye and Timothy Whitehorne overseers of this my present testament and last will.”[1]

Anne Phillips was to be 'overseen'  by Heminges, Burbage, Sly and Whitehorne; if she remarried, the overseers would become executors, and this was in fact what happened: Anne Phillips did remarry and thus ceased to be executrix.  Now as we observed earlier, some authors were hindered by status from editing their own works but not from overseeing their editions, thus the messages in dedication and epistle are logically consistent: Shakespeare could not have edited his own works but he could have overseen the edition. From the former right he was barred by status, from the latter by death.  Yet clearly the Stratford man's status would not have barred him from editing his own works, and all the evidence argues that he did not at any time oversee the folio edition of the Shakespeare plays.

Orthodox biographers tell us that Shakspere (as the man's name was often spelled) returned to Stratford after writing The Tempest in 1611, though little evidence exists for this assumption. Why he would have left London in 1611 and not in 1609, or 1613, is hardly clear.  In 1613 he is mentioned in a legal record as residing in Stratford-on-Avon, but he is already living there according to a legal record of the previous year (the suit Bellott v. Mountjoy, to which he had been summoned as a witness). The details of this litigation need not concern us here, we only note the date the citizen of Stratford made his deposition, 11 May 1612, when he is clearly identified as “William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon”.[2]  Shakspere had then declared that he had known both plaintiff and defendant (the latter being the father-in-law of the former), but that he could not recall the exact year, stating that it was "ten years or so" ago. The action brought by Steven Bellot against his father-in-law was about the amount of the portion. Shakspere had acted as a go-between and somehow negotiated the portion at the request of his host Mountjoy. Stephen Bellott married Mary Mountjoy on 19 November 1604. At some time before November 1604 Shakspere must have lodged in Mountjoy’s house. It was not his residence, however. One witness deposed that he “lay in that house”, which implies that in 1603-4 Shakspere had no permanent abode in London. In every extant record between 1604 and 1612 Shakspere appears as citizen of Stratford: as in a document from early in 1611 about the Stratford tithes, a business in which Shakspere was heavily involved,[3] and also in 1609,  when one “Willielmus Shackspeare” sues one “Johannem Addenbrooke” for a debt of £6.[4] He is again referred to as citizen of Stratford (“Stratford Burgus” and “Willielmus Shackspeare, burgus predicti”).  He was not a London resident in 1603-4, and this fact is confirmed by another document dated 1602 in which he is identified as “William Shakespere of Stretford uppon Avon,"[5]. In February 1598 he was visited by inspectors on the suspicion of hoarding grain.[6]  Evidence of grain-hoarding would presumably be assessed over some previous period of time, so it appears likely that his permanent residence was in Stratford some time before February 1598.



          Thus, between 1597 and 1611 the documentary evidence is that Shakspere was domiciled in Stratford, not in London. Strangely, the only evidence for his ever having had a residence in the capital is found in the reports of the tax collectors in the autum of 1597 and the following years, and what we learn from them is that he no longer resided at that address.[7] Yet even if one grants the most favourable date, 1611, the information from the epistle seems without rhyme or reason if applied to the Stratford man. In the five remaining years before his death in 1616 he would have taken no action to provide authentic versions of the "maimed" texts, the so-called bad quartos; that is, between the year of his traditionally alleged departure from London and his death, he would have left it to his colleagues Heminges and Condell (and Burbage, who died in 1619) to gather his plays together and to restore them to their original state.  If we take Heminges and Condell at their word and accept that this man was the poet Shakespeare, it was not death which "departed" the author from the right to oversee his work, it was supreme indifference or sheer neglect.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that the poet Shakespeare had at one time fully exercised his "right" to oversee his works, the right that Heminges and Condell say "death" took from him. In 1598 the text of Love’s Labour’s Lost, though poorly printed, was published in a consistent version, indicating that it was the author who corrected the text but had for some reason abstained from proof-reading it.  The play, as its title page states, was “Newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespere" from a version now lost. In 1597 a bad text (Q1) was published of Romeo and Juliet. In 1599 a new edition of this play (Q2) was published as “Newly corrected, augmented, and amended”. “The fairly full stage-directions of Q2, with notes for the use of properties, suggest an author’s hand...”[8]  In fact, between 1598 and 1604 a number of good texts were published, suggesting that they were printed from the author’s manuscript or at least with his cooperation: A Midsummer-Night’s Dream (1600), The Merchant of Venice (1600), Much Ado About Nothing (1600), 2 Henry IV (1600), and, finally, the second edition (Q2) of Hamlet (1604), "Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie."


Shakespearean publication: 1598 - 1604

Let us consider this period of active revision, correction and amendment of Shakespearean texts between 1598 and 1604, and for the moment simply compare the lifespans of the two major claimants for the authorship of the canon (William Shakspere of  Stratford and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford), in relationship to the communication in  the epistle of the First Folio. If the author were the  Stratford player and shareholder, then he did actively correct and augment the editions until 1604 but afterwards lost any interest in them, though he lived on until 1616.  The statement in the Folio becomes then a pious lie to avoid an embarrassing truth: the poet had grown so indifferent to his own works that he no longer felt inclined to correct "the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters," after 1604. Indeed, years before his plays became “orphans” they  would have been left by the author in a “state of abandonment”.  Alternatively, if the author were Edward de Vere, he would have engaged in revision and correction of his plays published in quarto editions beginning in 1598 but would have been prevented from  continuing to do so by his death in June 1604.

This would certainly explain why the stream of  publication of Shakespeare’s plays was suddenly interrupted at that time, and clearly Heminges and Condell would have been telling the truth when they wrote:

"It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been wished, that the Author himself had liv'd to have set forth, and overseen his own writings; but since it hath bin ordain'd otherwise, and he by death departed from that right…"

One man, a stationer, played a major role in the publication of Shakespeare’s plays in the period 1598-1604. In July 1598 it is he who enters Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (his first-ever registration of a play) in the Stationers’ Register. In the second half of 1604 he prints Shakespeare's Hamlet (his last printing of a play). Thus the period of James Roberts’ involvement in the printing of Shakespeare's plays is more or less congruent with the period of the author's own overseeing of his works in quarto editions. [9]


James Roberts

           Roberts received his freedom from the Stationers’ Company in 1564. The end of the apprenticeship was fixed at the completion of the twenty-fourth year, regardless of how long before that date it had started. This was an educational measure the Common Council of London City had decreed in 1556 to prevent overhasty marriages of young people without adequate material means at the end of their apprenticeship.[10] It is therefore probable that James Roberts was born in 1540. As the minimum duration of apprenticeship was seven years and the possibility exists that he entered the apprenticeship after the age of seventeen, allowance must be made for a birthyear later by a few years. Since the 1570s he held, jointly with Richard Watkins, a lucrative privilege, a royal patent for the printing of Almanacs and Prognostications, renewed by the queen in 1589. In 1594 he acquired another lucrative privilege, the printing of the playbills formerly belonging to John Charlewood, whose widow Alice he had married. Another printer of Shakespearean works also succeeded to a printing business by marrying a widow. Richard Field, printer of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, married Jacqueline, widow of Thomas Vautrollier, and took over the latter’s business and patents (privileges). This kind of marriage was not unfrequent and profited both husband and wife. The number of printers in London was restricted. A stationer who married the widow of an authorized printer acquired eo ipso this authorization himself. If, as in the case of Charlewood/Roberts and Vautrollier/Field, the husbands had been granted some privileges, the match was the more valuable. Both Jacqueline Vautrollier and Alice Charlewood are known to have done some printing in the wake of their husbands’ death. This the Stationers’ Company allowed for some time. After a while, however, widows, if they had no son who was a stationer, would have had to sell. The only sure way then to stay in the business was to remarry another stationer.

It is not until 1594 that we see James Roberts start printing noteworthy literary works (he had printed some ballads before). From 1594 on he is a prolific printer. He prints nearly all the poetry of Michael Drayton and Samuel Daniel, as well as the satires of John Marston, but not plays (apart from the anonymous Arden of Feversham in 1599 and Samuel Daniel’s Cleopatra, though the latter was a “closet drama”, not a stage production).  Then, in 1600, we have a doubly dramatic turn, actually more of a U-turn, to dramatic literature. 

            It was A.W. Pollard in the first decades of the twentieth century who drew attention to the role of James Roberts in the publication of the plays belonging to the repertory of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and who advanced the conception of James Roberts as an agent of this company.[11] Though the theory has been rejected by such eminent scholars as E.K. Chambers, Charles Sisson and others, it never gave way completely and seems to have found a biotope in the Arden editions of Shakespeare.  In Pollard’s own day the theory gained some momentum. Previously Roberts had been regarded as a piratical printer, one who procured and printed copy in plain disrespect of the proprietary rights of the author. Pollard demonstrated the extreme improbability, if not absurdity, of this view. He pointed to Roberts’ close business relationship with the players as a printer of their playbills, making it unlikely that he would act against their interests.

Pollard assigned a key role to James Roberts in the history of the publication of Shakespeare’s plays, and highlighted some occurrences which those scholars who have justly rejected his overall interpretation have unjustly neglected to re-interpret. In formulating his theory Pollard was led by two concerns.  First of all he wanted to demonstrate that the versions of Shakespearean texts that have come down to us are for the most part in 'good' quarto editions because the players had successfully prevented the unscrupulous from pirating them.  The other factor which informed Pollard's theory was that between 1598 and 1604 James Roberts entered five plays from the repertory of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the Stationers’ Register but either did not print them at all or protracted their publication. Of the five plays performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men he entered, one is lost, while two were printed respectively two and six years later by others. Entering the texts gave Roberts control over publishing and, as he was a printer, the right to print them.

It must be understood that the publisher was generally another stationer than the printer, and it was the publisher who owned the right of publishing. We want to avoid the term “copyright” here, as this could prompt the reader to form the incorrect representation that this right (granted by the Stationers’ Company) was more or less the same as a modern copyright. It was not, it was in the very etymological sense a right to copy, literally to multiply the work the publisher had entered in the Stationers’ Register, but it did not encompass all the rights attached to the modern notion of copyright.[12]

            The five plays of the repertory of the Chamberlain’s Men that Roberts entered in the Stationers’ Register are: 1) On 22 July 1598 Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice; again the entry was conditional, not on the obtention of “further authority” but of the “license of the Lord Chamberlain” to print it; it was printed by Roberts in the last quarter of 1600. 2) On 27 May 1600 he entered the anonymous A Morall of Clothe Breeches and Velvet Hose. This play was almost certainly based on Robert Greene's Quip for an Upstart Courtier.[13]  It is not known whether it was ever printed. If so, it is no longer extant. It was entered upon the condition of getting “further authority”; 3) On 29 May 1600 he entered Allarum to London., also an anonymous play. Again, more authority was required by the wardens of the Stationers’ Company, “PROVIDED that yt be not printed without further Aucthoritie”; the play was printed two years later, but not by Roberts. 4) on 26 July 1602 he entered Hamlet; this time no condition was imposed, not explicitly at least; Roberts printed it toward the end of 1604. Yet a much abridged and altered version had been printed in 1603 by Valentine Sims for the publishers Nicholas Ling and John Trundle.  We will later examine how this was possible.  5) on 7 February 1603 he entered Troilus and Cressida “in a full Court holden this day” on the condition to print it “when he hath gotten sufficient authority for it”; he never printed that; it was re-registered and printed in 1609. Of these five plays he published none and printed only two: Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet, but with the considerable delay of over two years, a rare phenomenon in the printing trade. 

This caught Pollard’s attention. Though Roberts did not publish the plays, by entering them he could control their date of publication. This manoeuvre can best be observed from his handling of The Merchant of Venice. He registered it on 22 July 1598, assigned the right to Thomas Hayes on 28 October 1600 and printed it the same year (it is even possible he had already printed it when Thomas Hayes received the right to publish).  It is not known when he transferred his right in Hamlet to Nicholas Ling for whom he printed it in 1604.

It is a remarkable fact which Pollard saw and which apparently he alone had thus far thought important: Roberts was a dilatory registerer of plays. On this cognition Pollard built his theory of the “conditional blocking entries”. According to Pollard, Roberts created this delay in three instances by having the wardens of the company require “further/sufficient authority” and in one case, the license of the Lord Chamberlain.

But what was “sufficient authority” and whose authority was deemed sufficient? Article 4 of the Star Chamber Decree of 23 June 1586, the first comprehensive press act in English history, had vested the power of licensing for the press in the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. In 1588 this power of licensing was extended to their deputies, in most cases clerics, among others: Abraham Hartwell, the secretary of the Archbishop of Canterbury, later Samuel Harsnett, chaplain to the Bishop of London. Zachariah Passfield, a prebendary of St Paul’s, was another frequent licensor. When the wardens required “further authority”, or “sufficient authority” it always meant that the book in question had not yet been examined by one of these episcopal censors. In the case of Alarum for London, A Moral of Cloth Breeches and Velvet Hoses and of Troilus and Cressida it was what the wardens required James Roberts to do: to submit it to an episcopal censor before printing it.

The “full court” which requested such authority for Troilus and Cressida  is the Court of Assistants, the governing body of the Stationers’ Company. A Court of Assistants was the governing body of every London livery company: drapers, ironmongers, etc. The organization of the medieval and early modern corporation was, in fact, not so very different from that of a modern corporation. The Court of Assistants can be readily likened to the modern board of directors, the master and the two wardens (upper warden and under warden) to the management in charge of the day-to-day business. The wardens, elected annually at the end of June or the beginning of July, were ex officio members of the Court of Assistants and remained so after the end of their term. No mystery or extraordinary circumstance need be sought to explain this licensing by the Court of Assistants and their request of “sufficient authority”. It means no more than that the Court of Assistants just happened to be holding a session that day. In 1599 the same happened eight times; in 1600, two; in 1601 and 1602, five times each; and in 1603, four times.  Nor should we suppose the requirement of “sufficient authority” is unusual. Several entries show such a requirement. It is, as stated above, absent from the entry of Hamlet. However, the trivial reason why no further authority was required for Hamlet is that this had already been obtained. To be precise, when Roberts presented the manuscript of Hamlet to the wardens of the Stationers’ Company for entrance, it bore the signature of an episcopal censor for approval, the Imprimatur

It is true, though, that unlike their earlier policy, during the period of 1601-1603 the wardens more often requested that a work not yet submitted to an episcopal censor (referred to as “authority”) be submitted to them.  It was the end of the reign and political nervosity was mounting. The wardens were less inclined to incur risks by letting a work pass without legal authorization (which they could and often did). On 1 June 1599 the Archbishop ordered the Stationers’ Company to burn all the works of Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey, the satires of John Marston, Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s Elegies and a number of other works.

We have stated that the Star Chamber Decree of 1586 had vested the licensing power for the press in the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, and have used the same word “license” in connection with the wardens of the Stationers’ Company. Indeed, the entry of Hamlet was done under the hand of Master Passfield, a censor, and of Simon Waterson, then under warden, as well. The two licenses, the one of the censors and the other of the Stationers’ Company are entirely independent of one another.

Yet, it is useful to deal with this issue when we come to the entry of The Merchant of Venice, which, as Chambers points out, is of a different nature than the four others; and for us first to return to Pollard’s theory on James Roberts’ role. Pollard remains entirely silent on how Roberts could have “enticed” the wardens into requiring “further authority”.  What is undeniably true is that Roberts waited an unusually long time to print The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and Troilus and Cressida, which play he had still not printed when he went out of business in 1606 or 1608. Thus it might be that Pollard was onto something about Roberts, as indeed we believe he was.


The stayed plays in August 1604

                 Pollard was also correct in his observation that it was James Roberts the stationer who on 4 August 1600 tried to enter four plays, three of them by Shakespeare. The four were: Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, As You Like It, and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour.


[to mr Robertes]  4. Augusti [1600];

As yow like yt:     to be staied

Henry the fifth:    to be staied

Every man in his humor:  to be staied

The commedie of muche A doo about nothinge:  to be staied


The plays were 'stayed,' and Pollard saw this is as another successful attempt by the players to prevent the printing of their plays, ignoring that one of the plays, Henry V, was registered only ten days later in a version which fulfills his own criterion of an out-and-out 'bad quarto,' and possibly already printed at its registration.  “Here we have the ‘Lord Chamberlen’s men’ themselves taking action with the Stationers’ Company direct,  despite the fact that they had no status in it, to protect their own property. The fact that the Stationers permitted them to do this is significant of the influence which as the Lord Chamberlain’s servants they possessed...” [14].

            The possibility that he was acting as agent of the Chamberlain’s Men, as Pollard hypothesized, has been rightly rejected. Good texts (like The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing) presuppose a certain degree of cooperation by the author, but the possibility that James Roberts was acting as an agent of Shakespeare himself has never been examined. 

The stayed plays of August 1600, with which Pollard sought further to vindicate his theory, falsify it. In 1960 C. J. Sisson wrote :

“I have little doubt that the 'entry' of the 4 August 1600 on a spare leaf of Register C is a mere memorandum of the Clerk's and not an entry, and that the words 'to be staied' mean that the desired entry is to await further consideration. The absence of any Stationer’s name from the margin is significant. A provisional entry would certainly impede any subsequent, alternative claim to the same 'copy' or 'book' by another Stationer. It is difficult to see any necessity for interpreting the entries in question as evidence that Roberts, for instance, was a mere agent of the Lord Chamberlain's Men in a device to prevent the entry of copies of their plays to other Stationers desirous of printing them. The problem obviously requires more detailed examination than can be given here, but it cannot yet be taken as settled.”[15]

Peter W. M. Blayney has remarked about Pollard’s theory, “But no matter how flimsy the narrative has proved when subjected to scholarly scrutiny, as a story it has proved all too durable. Like a folktale, it continues to surface in whole or in part in most introductory accounts of the relations between the early theatre and the book trade.”[16]  The problem of the stayed plays “cannot be taken as settled”, Sisson wrote in 1960. When the wardens of the Stationers’ Company ordered a stay it was evidently in cases which fell within the purview of their specific responsibility, the right of a stationer to a copy, the publisher’s copyright. A stay meant that there was a contest over such rights and it had to be “further considered” by the Court of Assistants . On June 1602 the copyright of the stationer John Barnes for Riding's dictionary is suspended  and a remark is added "to be further considered of". Indeed, on  6 December 1602 it was definitively entered to John Barnes by a full court.[17] However, when several works were presented at the same time, either for first registration or transfer, the Court of Assistants not only checked the books presented for entry or transfer that day but added to the lot recent entries, if any, by the same stationer.

In the same way, the two plays (A Morall of Clothe Breeches, Allarum) Roberts had entered on 27 and 29 May 1600, about ten weeks before 4 August 1600, were put together with those presented for entry but stayed that day. The different status of the two plays and the four stayed plays (Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, As You Like It, and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour) is clearly marked out.

For the first two plays, orderly entered, James Roberts possessed the right. The lack of authority had no impact on this right which Roberts could only lose if another stationer proved to have an older right in it. Because he had the right in these plays, his name was written in front of them. Because he had not yet a right in the stayed plays, his name was not  placed in front of them. This indicates that the six plays had been written on a fly-leaf in order to submit the case to the decision of the Court of Assistants.[18] Why was it ultimately not done? It is, again, the date of 14 August which should retain our attention. On that date there are three entries. Two of them were signed by both wardens, Thomas Dawson and Edward White. The formula of the third entry is very unusual. Whereas all other entries of the day were licensed by both wardens, this entry was licensed by only one of the wardens to Thomas Pavier:

"by Direction of master White, warden, under his handwriting."

The clause "These Copies following being things formerly printed and set over to the said Thomas Pavier" clearly suggests that the fact of being formerly printed and transferred was considered to constitute a copyright for all these plays among which was Henry V. It was Pavier's copyright which had been opposed to James Roberts on 4 August 1600 and had caused the staying of the plays. The other warden, Thomas Dawson, seems to have been reluctant to accept it.

Why was Edward White pressing ahead? Thomas Pavier and Edward White were partners for at least one play: Titus Andronicus, a play James Roberts printed the same year for Edward White alone ( perhaps in compensation). On 10 April 1602 there is a registration of the copyright transfer of three books by John Millington to Thomas Pavier,  among them Titus Andronicus and the first and second part of Henry VI, that is the Contention Between the Houses of Lancaster and York.[19] Furthermore, among the copies assigned to Pavier was The Spanish Tragedy, which had been Edward White's copy since 1599 when it was assigned to him by Abel Jeffes.[20] Edward White used his function as under warden to protect the publishing right of his occasional partner Thomas Pavier in Henry V. There was no intervention of an invisible hand, there was instead the well-seen hand of Edward White.

Above all there was no attempt by the players to protect their property, as Pollard, in a cascade of exhortative phrases, proclaimed.

Why was As You Like It withdrawn, and not entered until November 1623?  It was certainly not this play which caused the stay. No other publishing right was opposed to it as in the case of Henry VAs You Like It was most likely returned by James Roberts to the author Shakespeare. As to the reason, we can only speculate.

Six more plays of the Chamberlain’s Men were entered in the period 1598-1603, but not by Roberts. Three or more works from the repertory of the Chamberlain’s Men, now the King’s Men, were entered after 1603, but none by Roberts. Roberts continued registrating works in the register after that date, three in all. It is perplexing that no scholar, in particular Greg himself, has ever taken note of another striking connection of Roberts' endeavours, either with respect to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their plays or in relationship to Shakespeare and his plays. After 1604 Roberts, in the remaining two or four years he was in business, never again concerned himself with dramatic copy. Between 1598 and 1604 Roberts seems to have concentrated on the printing of Shakespeare. The printer James Roberts did not act as an agent of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men but on behalf of their main author Shakespeare.

In the remaining years he was in business James Roberts never concerned himself again with the company that the Lord Chamberlain's Men had become, the King’s Men, nor with Shakespeare. Edward de Vere had died in June 1604. Then or soon afterwards Roberts started the printing of Hamlet.  We have seen that Roberts' involvement in the printing and publishing of Shakespeare’s plays coincides with the period the author was overseeing editions of his plays. The fact that in the remaining years he was in business Roberts never printed Troilus and Cressida, suggests that after 1604 he was no longer receiving orders because the author had “been departed from the right to oversee his own writings.” 

            And that the epistle to the First Folio spoke true.


The entry of The Merchant of Venice

On 22 July 1598 James Roberts paid sixpence to the Stationers’ company for the entrance of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The entry reads:

xxijo Iulij 1598

Iames Robertes./Entred for his copie under the handes of bothe the wardens, a booke of the Marchaunt of Venyce or otherwise called the Iewe of Venyce./ Provided that yt bee not printed by the said Iames Robertes; or anye other whatsoever without lycence first had from the Right honorable the lord Chamberlen     vjd

As in the case of Troilus and Cressida, and contrary to Hamlet, the play had not been submitted before to an episcopal censor, but no “further authority” was required by the wardens. A few weeks before, new wardens had been elected. Isaac Bing as upper warden and William Ponsonby as under warden were serving their one-year term. William Ponsonby was Spensers’s and Sidney’s publisher. It may be due either to him or to Bing or to both that the second title of the play, The Jew of Venice, was mentioned in the entry, precluding any duplicate entry resulting from a different title. Without the mention of the second title it was not assured that another stationer would not register and print the same play under the title The Jew of Venice.

It was unusual for a publisher to delay printing for a long time; generally, a book was printed within 3 months after entrance, but Roberts did wait over two years. Shakespeare’s play was safe-guarded against printing at an earlier date than the Lord Chamberlain would allow.  If so, we note, the clause “that it be not printed by the said James Roberts or any other whatsoever without license first had from the Right Honorable the Lord Chamberlain” is puzzingly redundant. The possibility that any other stationer could have printed it seems to have been ruled out by the modalities of the entry. Roberts’ right was beyond contest, once the copy was entered to him. Why then this additional clause that Roberts had to have the license of the Lord Chamberlain before printing and that neither any other stationer should print it?

We must first ask: from whom did the wardens and the clerk, who registered it, receive the information that the Lord Chamberlain alone would determine the date of printing? Leo Kirschbaum, after having noted that the entry is unusual, recurred to the following makeshift: “When Roberts entered the play he must have brought a warrant from the Lord Chamberlain that the play was never to be published without the latter’s consent.”[21] This hypothesis is not plausible. As Greg observes: “When later the book-entries were taken over by the Clerk the procedure became more formal, and we then find Collins [the clerk] duly recording some licenses as contained in covering letters or given by word of mouth. Thus in 1589 two copies were ‘allowed by a letter or note under Mr. Hartwell’s hand’ and another two entered ‘upon the Bishop of London’s letters in that behalf directed’; in 1584 a copy was ‘allowed by th’Archbishop of Canterbury by testimony of the Lord Chenie and in 1587 two were ‘authorized’ by the same ‘as reported by Mr. Cosin’.”[22] Had there been a written warrant by the Lord Chamberlain the wardens would have acknowledged it, either as a note beneath the entry or in the records of the Court of Assistants.[23]

The only plausible premise is that James Roberts himself instructed the wardens of the company “by word of mouth”. Then, unfortunately, the clause is doubly redundant. If Roberts told the wardens he had to wait for the license or permission of the Lord Chamberlain, why was it necessary to state that Roberts himself should not print the play till the Lord Chamberlain had given his consent?  This would have been a matter solely concerning the Lord Chamberlain and James Roberts, not the Stationers’ Company. Was there perhaps another reason why the clause was necessary in this form to prevent any earlier printing by another stationer?

But what is meant by “the license of the Lord Chamberlain”? The licensing power   lay with the Archbishop of Canterbury and with the Bishop of London or their deputies, the censoring authorities, controlling the conformity of a work with the political, religious and moral order. When the wardens used phrases such as “further authority” or “better authority” for a book not yet submitted to the censors it is to this episcopal authority they refer.

In the case of Merchant of Venive, however, it was the license, the permission of the Lord Chamberlain that was required, which, as E.K. Chambers remarked, is different from the “normal conditional entries”.[24] The Lord Chamberlain reserved the right to decide when the play would go into print. This license had nothing to do with the episcopal Imprimatur. Neither was it the license granted by the wardens, which was nothing more than the granting of the publishing right to one stationer as against the right of any other, today commonly called (but as seen, not wholly exactly), the copyright. This license was totally independent of the episcopal license. The publishing right was created by the permission given by the wardens or sometimes the Court of Assistants of the Stationers’ Company. Once entered, the lack of episcopal authority was no bar to this license.

The authority of the Lord Chamberlain must have been of some other kind. Besides the legal authority of the episcopal censors two other extra-legal sources of authority, existed.  First, some discretion was left to the wardens of the company themselves. They could decide that no authority was required for certain books, thereby themselves authorizing it by implication. This is what happened in the case of The Merchant of Venice. The wardens did not require Roberts to submit the play to an episcopal censor before printing it.

The other source of authority was that of “experts”, as Greg aptly terms it.[25] It was an authority closely related to the specific office. Such an "expert" was, for instance, Sir Thomas Smith (ca. 1558-1625), from 1609-1620 treasurer of the Virginia Company. On 24 February 1612 the following entrance was made[26] :


Master Welbye.

Entred for his Copy under th[e h]andes of Sir THOMAS SMITHE knighte and Master Lownes warden, A booke or thinge called, The publicacon of the lotary [i.e. lottery] for Virginia...


The wardens had no reason not to accept the publication of a lottery for a company of which Smith was the treasurer and one of the founders; nor the authority of the French ambassador in December 1590 for reports on the civil wars in his country;[27] nor the joint authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Admiral, the Lord Chamberlain of Her Maiesties House in October 1590 for the entrance of The tables and mappes of the Spaniardes pretendid Invasion.[28] It must be stressed that in each case this kind of "expert" authorization was attached to the document or book before it was presented for entrance; in no case did the wardens refer to such an authority when they required "further authority" (or "lawful", "sufficient", etc.). 

In the case of The Merchant of Venice it was not the license of the Stationers’ Company, the publishing right, which was required. This had been granted by the wardens Bing and Ponsonby. Neither was it the Imprimatur,  the formal authority of an episcopal censor. In this case the clause would have been “provided he get sufficient authority”, as it was, for instance, for Troilus and Cressida. It was not the license of the Master of the Revels or his superior the Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household. What sort of licensing authority could this license of the Lord Chamberlain then have been?

Another source of authority must now also be considered: that of the author himself. Far from being a non-entity in the publishing process, we shall soon see that the author did possess a kind of veto right.


The authority of the author

              That the Stationers’ Company recognized certain authorial rights is apparent from several records in the Court Books B an C and the book of entries, the part of the Stationer’s Registers reserved for the registration of books, e.g. from the following entry of 11 March 1607:

John Browne

Entred for his copie under the handes of the wardens. a book called musicke of sundry Kyndes sett forthe in Two Bookes &c Composed by THOMAS FFORD

yt is agreed 13 marcij Anno supradicto [1607]. that this copye shall never hereafter be printed agayne without the consent of master FFORD the Aucthour

John Browne


Clearly, the author has made the reprinting of his work dependent upon his consent. Yet it is not the author who addresses the wardens, it is instead the owner of the copy, the publisher John Brown, who declares that he needs the consent of the author. The addition is a memorandum. More similar memoranda can be found in the book of entries. The word “memorandum” is sometimes explicitly stated. As in an entry of 22 September 1628: “Entred for his Copie under the handes of Master THOMAS TURNOR [episcopal corrector] and Master Weaver [warden of the Stationers' company] warden. A booke Called A Just Apologie for the Jesture of kneeling in the Act of receiving the Lordes supper. by Master THOMAS PAYBODYE./

MEMORANDUM That I the afore said William Jones Doe promise not to reimprinte the same booke againe with out the Authors Consent./ and that I the said William Jones shall surrender up the said Coppie to him againe, when he shall require it.

By  me William Jones”

Again, it is not the author who has sent a letter to the wardens that he must give his consent to a reprint. It is the publisher William Jones who signs a declaration that he is bound to ask the permission of the author for reprinting when the book goes out of print.  Such a memorandum was sometimes also written in the margin, sometimes incorporated within the entry. Without a written memorandum the successors of the current wardens would not have known that those books could not be reprinted without authorial consent. As for the purpose, the wardens had to be informed that they could not apply paragraph 5 of the company’s ordinance of 1588.


The ordinance of 1588

                  The ordinance is printed in Arber’s Transcript of the Stationers’ Registers.[29] It bears no date. Arber tentatively dates it Spring of 1588, and it was certainly issued in the first half of that year. The period is determined by the signature of the then master of the company, John Judson, who served only one term as master, 1587/88. The ordinance has six paragraphs.

In his History of English Law W.S. Holdsworth gives an account of paragraph 5:

“Copyright is protected by the imposition of penalties upon those who infringed it. It is assigned, sold, settled, given in trust; and limited grants are made. Its duration is nowhere stated, unless it is expressly created for a limited period. It is therefore most probable that it was perpetual, unless a general enactment or order could be pointed to which expressly limited it. Nowhere can such general enactment or order be found. The only limitation on the right of the owner of the copy was an order of 1588 that, if a book was out of print, and, after warning, the owner did not reprint within six months, any member of the company could do so, provided that the author did not refuse and the owner of the copyright was given such part of the profit as the Master and Wardens of the company might order.”[30]

            The memoranda in case of the entry to John Browne differs from the clause in Merchant of Venice  in form but not in substance, with the difference that it is the Lord Chamberlain, a case absolutely unique in the registers from 1557 to 1640, who makes the printing dependent upon his consent. The clause in Merchant of Venice  is an exact negation of the clause in paragraph 5 of the ordinance of 1588. The wardens are warned that if the play is not yet printed after a certain time James Roberts should not be urged to start printing it and no other stationer “whatsoever” can be given the printing of an edition: “Provided that it be not printed by the said James Roberts; or any other whatsoever without license first had from the Right Honorable the Lord Chamberlain.”


Objection: first printing versus reprint

                   Paragraph 5 addresses the delaying of the reprint of books out of print but not, at least not explicitly, the case of the first printing of a book. However, the purview of a law depends upon more than the letter: the intention of the legislator must also be taken into account and this intention must be understood within the historical context. The ordinance of 1588 was probably the company’s most comprehensive attempt to palliate the inequalities. In paragraph 1 it was stipulated that no forms of letters should be kept standing; in paragraph 2, that the number of books per issue (impression) was to be limited; in paragraph 3, that no apprentices should be employed to replace journeymen; in paragraph 4 were noted some exceptions to paragraph 3; in paragraph 5, as seen, if a book were out of print and not reprinted within a suitable time by the copy owner, one impression could be given to any stationer.  Paragraph 6 is the stick to the carrot of the preceding paragraphs: if journeymen were still not content, the consequence would be the repeal of the entire ordinance.

            The objective of paragraph 5 was to keep piling up of copy within limits. However, monopolizing of copies by delaying the first printing had the same effect as delaying the reprinting of a sold-off edition or, being the malpractice addressed in paragraph 2, the printing of huge quantities. It would have been illogical not to include first printing in the application of paragraph 5.  Empirical evidence may be found in the Stationers' Register and the Court Books B and C, that the paragraph was extended to first printing. In an entry of December 5, 1606 we find the clause: " PROVYDED that this copye must be prynted before Mydsommer next"[31]. This is somewhat longer than six months but given the fact that the custom was to fix time limits between two feast days, the term of six months was approximated to as close as the interval between two feast days permitted.  Paragraph 5 also helps to solve another bibliographical and legal puzzle: the printing of the first quarto of Hamlet.


Hamlet: Q1 (1603) and Q2 (1604)

             The publication history of Q1 and Q2 of Hamlet is another riddle which scholars have been unable to explain satisfactorily. James Roberts, to whom the play was entered on 26 July 1602, held ipso facto the right of publishing. He did not print it until the latter half of 1604. The publisher was Roberts’ long-standing partner Nicholas Ling, to whom at some time between July 1602 and 1604 Roberts must therefore have transferred  his right by virtue of the entry of July 1602. It has been passingly mentioned above in connection with the evidencing procedure for authority after entrance that registration of such a transfer was a possibility but not a necessity. But in 1603 a quarto, very different from that printed by Roberts in 1604, was published by John Trundle and Nicholas Ling and printed not by Roberts but by Valentine Sims. If James Roberts still possessed the publishing right, this publication of 1603 constituted an infringement of Roberts’ right. It would normally have been punished by the Stationers’ Company, which could not and did not tolerate such breaches of their regulations. The exclusivity of the right of publishing was essential to the orderly functioning of the company, which is why infringements of the right of others were called “disorderly printing”. But no trace can be found of a fine imposed on John Trundle.

The presence of Nicholas Ling complicates the matter. In 1604 Nicholas Ling had been assigned the right in Hamlet by Roberts. Ling would have violated the publishing right of his partner John Roberts, though it was likely that the latter would assign it to him. It is possible, likely even, that Ling had already been assigned this right in 1603. By publishing an unauthorized text then, Ling, oddly enough, would have “pirated” his own copy.  In his introduction to the Arden edition of the play Harold Jenkins notes: “The participation in Q1 of Trundle, a very much junior partner, with Ling, an established bookseller, together with Trundle’s disappearance when the bad quarto was succeeded by the better, has sometimes led to a guess – it can be no more – that it was he who secured the unauthorized copy... When Roberts entered Hamlet, then, in July 1602, with or without the Lord Chamberlain’s men’s blessing, it is to be supposed that what he hoped to print was what he later did print, the genuine text. But before he could do so, he was anticipated by Q1, which led to Ling’s having publication rights and subsequently partnering Robert in Q2”[32]

It is outside the scope of the present work to examine in detail Jenkins’ lengthy account of the publication history. We will instead give a brief account of the misconceptions we observe and then argue that the enigmatic aspects disappear when paragraph 5 is taken into consideration.

            The fundamental error in Jenkins' analysis lies in his assumption that Trundle and Ling would have established publishing rights by mere publishing, defeating Roberts’ right by virtue of his entrance of July 1602.  In a statement of about 1620 the stationer John Bill declares:  “Bishop gave to DOCTOR FULKE as also for 40li which Bishop gave him and his Assignees, and this appears by witnesses as also the registry of the Stationers’ Hall where this was entered before the master and wardens of the Stationers at a Court then holden as all copies which are bought by Stationers are. And this entry in the hall book is the common and strongest assurance that Stationers have, for all their copies, which is the greatest part of their estates.” [our emphasis].

Ling and Trundle could not defeat the entry to Roberts by mere publishing.  There were only three ways the right to a copy established by entrance could be defeated. First, if it afterwards appeared that a previous entry existed. Second, if the author complained that he had not given his authorization.[33] Third, if a publisher unduly delayed the printing or reprinting of a work. Jenkins’ afterthought that the manifest proviso in Merchant of Venice is perhaps also latent in Hamlet is a lucid insight, but eventually misses the true causality.  It is because the proviso was absent from the entry of Hamlet  that Trundle could publish the so-called bad quarto in 1603. That it was in fact Trundle who procured the copy of Q1 is much more than "a guess," it is a certitude. That Trundle did not incur a penalty need not surprise us. It simply means that he had not acted contrary to the regulations of the Stationers Company. That he did not is clear from paragraph 5 of the ordinance of 1588. In 1603 more than six months had elapsed, and Roberts had not yet printed Hamlet. Since the entry lacked a clause similar to that of The Merchant of Venice, Roberts' or rather Ling's right could be suspended for one impression if Trundle got hold of a manuscript of Hamlet. Obviously, Ling or Roberts had again to wait for the permission of the author, but this was not expressly stated in the entry of Hamlet.  All Ling and Roberts (who must have already have assigned the right to Ling), could do was either refuse to publish or to print respectively, and to let Trundle have the right for one impression. Ling actually had two options: either he could desist and receive a part of the proceeds (to be fixed by the wardens), or he could directly share in the publication with Trundle. But Ling could not prevent Trundle from publishing one edition of Hamlet. When Q2, markedly different from Q1, was published in the second half of 1604, Trundle might have conserved his right in Q1 (if it were not already out of print), but this was now valueless.

            Hamlet provides another proof that paragraph 5 was also applied to first printing, as logically follows from the intent of the ordinance of 1588.



             Even on the flimsy hypothesis that it was the administrative authority of the Lord Chamberlain which was required, the clause in The Merchant of Venice makes no sense. In that case James Roberts would have to wait for this authority but would have kept the right of publishing against any other stationer, such authority being entirely independent of the right to the copy granted by the Stationers’ Company. The second part of the proviso, that it should neither be printed by “any other whatsoever,” would have been superfluous. This clause uniquely refers to paragraph 5 of the ordinance of 1588. While such a proviso was included in the entry of The Merchant of Venice but not in that of Hamlet, the unauthorized version Q1 could be published in 1603 against the publishing right of Ling. As the only condition to make void the application of this paragraph 5 was the opposition, the “hindrance” of the author, the logical conclusion is that the Lord Chamberlain, who made the printing conditional upon his license, was in fact the author himself.

            Thus, what actually happened on 22 July 1598 at Stationers’ Hall was that James Roberts, like John Browne on 11 March 1607 and William Jones on 22 September 1628 (for reprinting), told the wardens that the author reserved the right of the date when the play should be printed, so that paragraph 5 could not be applied, and that the author was the Lord Chamberlain. The clerk then inserted a clause that the permission or license of the Lord Chamberlain was required and chose a wording which made it plain that this paragraph was put out of effect: “not to be printed by James Roberts nor by any other whatsoever”, so that Roberts could not be urged to start printing and no other stationer could be given the right to print one edition. The wardens were advised that the sole condition of non-application was fufilled: pending permission of the author, which was indicated by “license of the Lord Chamberlain”.  For the wardens to know they could not apply paragraph 5 it was necessary that some reference be made to the only person whose pending permission could bar the application, and that was the author.  Thus a trade regulation of the Stationers’ Company brings us closer to the identity of the author of The Merchant of Venice.

           Finally, who was this Lord Chamberlain? Without doubt, many will answer George Carey, 2nd Baron of Hunsdon. He then would be our author, though nothing in his known history would lend credence to this conclusion. Yet a handy rule of thumb, not without some currency even among historians, has it that the title 'Lord Chamberlain' always refers to the Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household. When a tenet, be it ever so widespread, leads us to absurd conclusions, it should be re-examined.  Not only did Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, sign a declaration as “Lord Chamberlain” in 1603, we also find that Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford and Lord Great Chamberlain of England, signed the probation of Henry VIII’s will[34] in 1547 as “Lord Chamberlain” – to cite only two such cases. Accounts of coronation ceremonies reveal further instances, and Charles Wisner Barrell and Ruth Loyd Miller have both provided sufficient evidence that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford Lord Great (or High) Chamberlain of England was sometimes referred to as Lord Chamberlain.[35]

            In 1598 there are only two possible Lord Chamberlains as candidates for the authorship of The Merchant of Venice: the unlikely George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon, and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. 

[1] Honigmann, E.A.J. and Brock, Susan (eds.). Playhouse Wills 1558-1642. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993, p. 74.

[2] Chambers, E.K.William Shakespeare – A Study of Fact and Problems. 2 vols. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1930, Vol. II.91.

[3] Ibid.,  II.118-27.

[4] Ibid., II.114-6.

[5] Ibid., II.107.

[6] Ibid., II.101.

[7] Ibid. , II.87-90.

[8] Ibid., I.341.

[9] See Det.1.2.1 Annotations and Det.1.2.2 Quartos 1594-1609.

[10] Arber, E., Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers, 1554-1640. Edited by E. Arber. 5 vols., London 1875-94, vol. I.xli

[11] Pollard, A.W. “Authors, Players, and Pirates in Shakespeare’s Day” in Shakespeare’s Fight with the Pirates and the Problems of the Transmission of his Text. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1967 (1st edition 1917), pp. 26-52

[12] See Patterson, Lyman Ray. Copyright in Historical Perspective, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968.

[13] See Part II.

[14] Pollard, A.W. “Authors”, p. 44.

[15] Sisson C.J. “The Laws of Elizabethan Copyright: the Stationers' View”,  The Library, Vol. XV, 5th series, 1960, pp. 19-20.

[16] Blayney, p.383.

[17] Arber III.207 and 223.

[18] Blayney’s intuition that the wardens, on notice by Roberts, expected more plays of the Chamberlain’s Men  to be registered in the ensuing period, is difficult to verify but could one day prove correct. However, it would only apply to plays registered by James Roberts, not by other stationers. The plays were prenoted for checking of entries to Roberts.

[19] Arber III.204.

[20] Arber III.146.

[21] Kirschbaum, Leo. Shakespeare and the Stationers. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 1955, p. 205.

[22] Greg. Some Aspects and Problems, p. 44.

[23] The so-called Court Books B and C. Records of the Court of the Stationers’ Company 1576 to 1602 ~ from Register B. Edited by W.W. Greg & E. Boswell. London: The Bibliographical Society, 1930, and Records of the Court of the Stationers’ Company 1576 to 1602 ~ from Register B. Edited by William A. Jackson. London: The Bibliographical Society, 1957.

[24] Chambers, The Elizabethan. Stage. 4 vol. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1923. III.188.

[25] Greg, Some Aspects and Problems, p. 109.

[26] Arber III.478.

[27] Arber II.568 and 569.

[28] Arber II.564.

[29] Arber II.43.

[30] Holdsworth, W.S. A History of English Law , 17 vol., London: Methuen. 1924. Vol. VI, p. 365

[31] Arber III.334.

[32] Hamlet. The Arden Shakespeare (ed.) Harold Jenkins. London: Routledge, 1982 (reprint of 1990), pp. 15-17.

[33] The case of Bacon’s Essays in 1597, see Arber II.78 and II.79. Other cases Arber IV.209 (the author Downam against William Bladon), also see Records of the Court of the Stationers’ Company 1602 to 1640. (Court Book C).  p. 70 : the author John Hayward against the stationers William Stansby and Ambrose Garbrand and p. 191 : the author Thomas Farnaby against the stationers Ralph Roundwait and Christopher Meredith.

[34] CSP, Domestic Series, of the reign of Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth. Ed. by Robert Lemon. First published  London 1856-1872. Kraus Reprint, Nendeln, Liechtenstein, 1967.

[35] Looney, John Thomas. Shakespeare Identified, Vol. II, edited by Ruth Loyd Miller. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press Corp., 1975, pp. 106-121.