Shakespeare's Fight With The Pirates

Saturday, March 27, 2021


Alfred W. Pollard was an accidental Shakespearean. He worked in the Department of Printed Books in the British Museum and served as the Honorary Secretary to the newly formed Bibliographical Society. For the first two decades of his career, his interests ranged from incunabula to illustrated books. In the summer of 1899, he first met W. W. Greg, who had submitted a hand-list of English plays (written before 1643 and published before 1700) to the Bibliographical Society for publication.[i] The friendship would prove to be formative for both men, especially after Pollard’s move to Wimbledon, just a mile away from Greg across the common. Upon meeting Greg, Pollard’s work (and by extension that of the Bibliographical Society) became predominantly English, rather than the prior focus on foreign printing and book-illustrations.[ii] And not long thereafter, Pollard was invited to examine a puzzling volume of Shakespearean plays—what would become known as the “Quartos of 1619”—thus starting a sensational story of bibliographical success (in the twentieth century) and of piratical printers (in the seventeenth century).

The discovery made by Pollard and, especially, Greg (and confirmed by others)—that the variously-dated Shakespearean quartos were all actually published in the same year, 1619—was (and still is) hailed as a triumph of the new, seemingly scientifically rigorous bibliographical methods espoused by the group of scholars who would become known as the New Bibliographers. Through a combination of expertise and industry, these bibliographical detectives could (seemingly) solve mysteries once and for all.[iii] (In many ways, however, this signature event can be seen as the fatal flaw of this methodology—by [mis]leading them to a focus on resolvable irregularities—that continues to impact scholarship to this day.) The fact that it was based on (the exposure of) a (perceived or alleged) fraud or forgery profoundly shaped the motivation, direction, and conclusions of their scholarship over the coming decades. It gave the New Bibliographers a sense of (false) confidence—“optimism,” to use Pollard’s favored term—that turned their attention to quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays, drove their obsession with Shakespeare’s text, and, thus, revealed their concomitant desire to institute a new orthodoxy in Shakespeare studies. Above all, it gave them a compelling narrative with a colorful cast of characters.

Pollard—a deeply religious and sincere Englishman who once published a treatise on practical morality[iv]—was in some senses the least colorful of the New Bibliographers; but he was also perhaps the most influential. His diligence, dedication to his work, and prolifically prodigious productivity were remarkable. (He completed the British Museum’s Catalogue of Books Printed in the XVth Century, a herculean labor that prepared him well for compiling the first edition of the Short-Title Catalogue some years later.) Pollard also considered scholarship to be something of a game, one in which he never took himself too seriously;[v] indeed, there is a playfulness to his prose that is often overlooked. He sallied forth to confront bibliographical foes, even (or especially) in his Shakespeare Folios and Quartos (1909)—a monumental, milestone work which continues to exert its influence. (It is quite literally a monument, its large format commissioned and designed by the Methuen publishing house as a companion to a series of facsimiles of the four Shakespeare folios.)[vi] It was here that Pollard first made the distinction between “good” and “bad” quartos—the latter were those which existed in inferior, abbreviated, and error-prone texts, and were thus labeled as the work of “pirates” who operated in an underhand, opportunistic manner; the “good” quartos possessed fuller, more complete, and more accurate texts, and were thus thought to be the work of more honest printers who (not coincidentally) thus provided access to texts closer to those written by Shakespeare, without the depredations introduced by the collaborative processes of theatrical and textual production. Dividing up the extant editions of the plays was an act of bibliographical (and moral) judgment that would prove to be very hard to shake.

According to some of his friends, Pollard was content with what he had accomplished, and may even have been looking forward to drifting into a kind of retirement. But then the war came. Pollard’s two sons were both killed in the Great War, in 1915, and through a combination of stoic English pride and grief, Pollard rededicated himself to and redoubled his scholarly labor (not to mention his religious and social activism). As J. Dover Wilson wrote of Pollard, “‘It’s dogged as does it’ is a good anaesthetic for a broken heart.”[vii]

It was at this time, just before the tercentenary year of 1916—while compiling and collaborating with Henrietta Bartlett on the Census of Shakespeare’s Plays in Quarto, and finishing an extensive introduction to a newly discovered edition of Richard II[viii]—that Pollard prepared the lectures that would eventually become Shakespeare’s Fight with the Pirates. The introduction to the Census (penned primarily by Pollard) recounts the stories of allegedly piratical printers who were responsible for textual errors, thereby making first editions superior for editors and textual scholars. Pollard was in possession of an unprecedented data set (the number of extant copies of each quarto edition) yet his attempts to understand the data were both made and marred by predetermined and inflexible narratives of piracy. He attempted to calculate survival rates (combining these with speculations about edition sizes and prices) but he was finally forced to admit defeat: the numbers simply were not consistent with the piracy narrative. In the absence of any apparent textual value, the existence of quarto editions beyond the first were either dismissed, or justified only through the testimony they bore to the continuing popularity of Shakespeare’s plays among readers, book-buyers, and, particularly, among the printers and publishers who produced and supplied them.

The obsession with text (which was shared and intensified by Greg) blinded Pollard from seeing the value in the objects he dismissed as (textually) corrupt and contaminated. The chronological scope of the Census ends in 1709—the date of the first Shakespeare edition with a named editor—and it represents only one of the many ways in which the New Bibliographers situated themselves in an exclusively male editorial and critical tradition. Pollard valued only Shakespeare’s “permanent” reputation, based on the great tragedies, rather than the (historically contingent) contemporary reputation that—according to the Census itself—was based on the popularity of the histories and comedies (thus reinforcing a gendered generic division that persists to this day). His dismissal of the later quartos reinforced a bias towards scholarly, critical editions, rather than those intended for use in schools (which were often edited by women). And while he criticized Edmund Malone for mutilating his quartos, he laments only that, for the booklover, “all the charm of the old volumes has been destroyed.” The material and biographical histories embedded in the books are dismissed as superfluous, as are those who would attend to them; only a lover of books (and certainly not a scholar) would care.

To be sure, Pollard was not entirely (or perhaps even primarily) to blame for the biases and blindness of the New Bibliography (that responsibility belongs to Greg, who was far more insistent and vociferous than Pollard could ever be). But his influential accounts were instrumental in perpetuating the editorial focus on Shakespearean texts, whether they were perceived to be authorized (and hence “good”) or unauthorized (and hence “bad”), even as Pollard modified his work and his conclusions within the astonishingly productive and compressed period of the war. Returning to Pollard and his formative work now, a century later, thus accomplishes two things: first, it demonstrates some of the fractures and failings within the New Bibliography. Although they did indeed succeed in instituting a new (more “optimistic”) orthodoxy within Shakespeare studies, the New Bibliographers were not in fact constructing something new; rather, they were simply working within the editorial and critical paradigms inherited from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholarship. They were successful in the sense that they reinforced a narrowly defined form of textual scholarship that was conducted by and for (a particular class of privileged) men and which suppressed alternate forms and histories of scholarship, and other systems of critical and historical value.

And, secondly, a return to Pollard shows what he actually wrote and how Shakespeare’s Fight with the Pirates, in particular, has been misinterpreted and misrepresented. Despite the considerable influence and power of his work—which cannot or should not be denied—a fuller, more nuanced, and more generous account of his scholarship can help point the way forward in twenty-first century bibliographical scholarship.

Pollard was asked to give the Sandars Lectures in Bibliography at the University of Cambridge in 1915 (the lectures were actually delivered by a friend, due to Pollard’s life-long stammer, an accidental phenomenon that explains why he became a librarian rather than a teacher)[ix] and they were duly published in consecutive issues of The Library. In 1917 the essays were published all together as Shakespeare’s Fight with the Pirates and the Problems of the Transmission of his Texts (1917). As the second half of the title demonstrates, Pollard had shifted his focus away from the narratives of piratical printers towards an editorial concern with textual studies—or, rather, as he argued in the revised introduction composed for a new edition in 1920, Shakespeare’s texts: “The central ideal of the lectures is that the early editions upon which a text of Shakespeare’s plays must be built, are a good deal closer to the original manuscripts from his pen than most of the text-builders have allowed” (vii). This was not merely the central idea of the book, but of the series of publications which it inaugurated: the Shakespeare Problems series, co-edited by Pollard and J. Dover Wilson. The principal problem, then, was not piracy—not, that is, the biographical degradation or celebration of early printers—but the transmission of “his” (i.e. Shakespeare’s) texts.

In the introduction, he reflects on his career in Shakespeare studies to date, writing that he was an “optimist impatient of the pessimism which represents human nature as worse than it is. For a quarter century my work had brought me into touch with printers and publishers and editors, and I stood up for my friends” (xxi-xxii). He continues by admitting to the stakes of the game: not simply “evidence which concerned the good name” of various of Shakespeare’s printers, but “the whole problem of the transmission of Shakespeare’s text, with possibilities of finding ourselves in an actual contact with him of which I had previously not allowed myself to dream” (xxii). By attending to and explicating the history of Shakespeare’s texts, rather than the extant corpus of quartos (as in the Census), Pollard hoped to discover the hand of Shakespeare himself (that is, evidence of the original, authorial manuscripts) within the artifacts themselves. This is why in the revised edition of 1920 Pollard fulfilled his desire (from three years earlier) to consult experts in the handwriting of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, including Sir Edward Maunde Thompson and Percy Simpson, who had published a slim book on Shakespearian Punctuation.[x] The goal, then, was to attempt to “look over Shakespeare’s shoulder” (xxvi).

As such, Pollard’s work was firmly focused on authorship and the degree to which a bibliographical investigation could reveal and demonstrate the nature and trajectory of Shakespeare’s career as a writer. Despite the antagonistic titular “fight” named by Pollard, the book as a whole is an illuminating and balanced account of the regulation of the early modern book trade in London; the relationships among authors, players, and printers; the nature of manuscript copy-texts; and the “improvers” (or editors) of Shakespearean texts. It is a valuable work (and remains so) for its measured approach and limited conclusions, even whilst evincing a central desire to find Shakespeare’s autograph copies hiding behind the early printed texts. As Pollard notes, with a playful qualification, “It is all pioneer work and we ask for the indulgence which pioneers may fairly claim and which up to the present we gratefully acknowledge has been most generously extended to us.”

What then, is “piracy” for Pollard? It is the publication of unauthorized—or, rather, un-Author-ized—texts, within an institutional, economic, and legal framework that lacked any modern notion of authorial copyright: “the appropriation of literary rights without permission or payment which we call piracy” (32) is aimed at exculpating both authors (who had no legal rights over their texts) and printers and publishers (who were largely working within the legal confines of the early modern London book trade). As Pollard is at pains to show, piracy was a threat, but by no means an existential (or even very expected) threat. (Im)pecunious stationers may have on occasion attempted to capitalize on, for example, the texts of plays, by acquiring and producing them without the knowledge or permission of authors or playing companies—but this was, in the grander scheme of things, a relatively rare occurrence, and one which, moreover, missed the crucial point: that, in the case of Shakespeare, the “good” quartos (which outnumbered the allegedly “bad”) may in fact preserve the texts—both substantives and accidentals—of Shakespeare’s own autograph manuscripts. Optimism triumphs over pessimism.

“Shakespeare’s Fight,” then, was not so much Shakespeare’s own fight with piratical printers—those who would capitalize on the lack of a system of authorial copyright in order to profit from playbooks that bore his name—than with the historical contingencies of the transmission of his texts, wherein “Shakespeare” is merely a stand-in for “Shakespeare’s manuscripts.” Such is the legacy and power of the piracy narrative, though—with its cast of characters, its good and bad stationers and its good and bad quartos—that this is how Pollard’s work is largely remembered. (The power of an evocative title cannot be overlooked, either, with its implication of Shakespeare himself sallying forth, Hamlet-like, to confront pirates…) Indeed, some eighty years later, the book would serve as the inspiration for one of the most influential and oft-cited essays in Shakespearean bibliography, Peter Blayney’s “The Publication of Playbooks,”[xi] which begins by recounting the “memorable tale” ostensibly told by Pollard. Seeking to overturn the orthodoxy that playbooks were as profitable and popular as they were universally accepted as being, Blayney drew attention to the narrative aspects of the story, which “has proved all too durable” (383). Like Pollard, Blayney assembled an unprecedent data set in order to support his argument (an argument that, in turn, has been challenged and overturned by a subsequent generation of bibliographers). But, in Blayney’s words, “those who shape the popular imagination usually find fiction more memorable than fact” (416n1). Considering his self-conscious participation in the game of scholarship, Pollard would presumably have agreed, even if he did not expect or predict the longevity of his characterization of piratical printers. He may have been an accidental Shakespearean, but he remains one of the most important and influential bibliographical scholars of the modern period.

[i] Walter Wilson Greg, A List of English Plays Written Before 1643 and Printed Before 1700 (London: The Bibliographical Society, 1899).

[ii] Pollard, “My First Fifty Years,” in A Select Bibliography of the Writings of Alfred W. Pollard (Oxford, 1938).

[iii] See my essay “Fact / Fiction” in Shakespeare / Text, ed. Claire M. L. Bourne (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2021).

[iv] Pollard, Life, Love and Light: Practical Morality for Men and Women (1911).

[v] J. Dover Wilson, “Alfred William Pollard 1859-1944,” Proceedings of the British Academy 31 (1945): 257-305.

[vi] Pollard, Shakespeare’s Fight with the Pirates, rev. ed. (1920), x.

[vii] Wilson, 268.

[viii] Henrietta C. Bartlett and Alfred W. Pollard, A Census of Shakespeare’s Plays in Quarto 1594-1709 (Yale University Press and Oxford University Press, 1916); The Tragedy of King Richard II, with an Introduction by Alfred W. Pollard (London: Quaritch, 1916).

[ix] “My own powers of unimpeded utterance being restricted to five minutes at a time, these lectures were very kindly read for my by Mr. Stephen Gaselee, of Magdalene College, and I have to record my gratitude, not only to Mr. Gaselee (to whom I am deeply in debt on many other counts), but also to the University authorities for permitting this unusual arrangement” (1917, vii.)

[x] Shakespeare’s Handwriting (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1916); Shakespearian Punctuation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911).

[xi] In A New History of Early English Drama, ed. John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan (Columbia University Press, 1997), 383-422.