The Ransom Center’s Spring 2020 Stories to Tell exhibition features some of the earliest printed examples of illustrated English plays. Unfortunately, the Center and its galleries are closed as part of an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), so we are sharing details with you here about these materials. We encourage you to come and see these early playbooks in person when we reopen.
Join us Friday, March 27 at 11:30 a.m. for a Facebook Live online chat with Aaron T. Pratt, Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts, as he explores the Stories to Tell exhibition. Learn more about the illustrations in England’s earliest printed playbooks and enjoy a Q&A about the ways pictures have shaped the experience of reading Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
Illustrating Early English Drama
When it was first published during the second decade of the sixteenth century, Henry Medwall’s (1462–ca. 1501) Fulgens and Lucrece not only became the first English play to see print, it also became the first printed play in England to feature an illustration—the first that survives today, anyway. A woodcut on the title-page shows a woman facing a male courtier, and the two lock eyes and gesture toward each other; they are wearing similarly patterned, luxurious clothing. As the scene of courtship suggests, Fulgens and Lucrece is an early romantic comedy. It would not be until 1709 that a publisher chose to illustrate any of William Shakespeare’s (1564–1616) plays, but the very first English playbook serves to remind us that the world’s most famous playwright and his earliest readers were used to encountering pictures with play-texts, pictures that helped them visualize both characters and their stories.
In fact, the publishers of playbooks with illustrations tended to be more interested in representing the fictional worlds conjured into being by plays than in showing what the plays would have looked like when performed on England’s stages. Many accounts of Shakespeare and his contemporaries have suggested that printed playbooks were read primarily by those seeking to recall performances they had seen (or had missed), but the illustrated playbooks of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England point toward an understanding of printed drama less as a souvenir of the stage and more as a source of fiction that could be appreciated independently of the conditions of performance. Generations of English readers enjoyed spending leisure time with playbooks, much like we do with novels today.
In a number of England’s earliest illustrated playbooks, individual woodcuts have been placed next to each other to give a rough sense of a play’s central characters. We see this in the first edition of Youth (ca. 1530), a morality play that encourages young people to pursue a life of Christian virtue and eschew vice: a man labeled “Youth” stands between two older men, who face him. One of them is labeled “Charite,” and the other goes unlabeled but presumably represents Pride or another of the play’s vice characters.
Here, in the second edition of Youth, a single woodcut depicts only two figures. When the block was used to print it, the space inside the two banners had been cut away, allowing the printer to insert pieces of metal type and label the figures however he wished. Designed to be reused, it was almost certainly not made for this book—the play calls for neither halberd nor longbow, and damage to the block evident in the impression indicates that it had been used before—but it nonetheless does the basic work of conveying to would-be readers that an everyman character named Youth will find himself in dialog with an allegorical character named Charity. Stock characters promise the basics of a stock morality-play plot.
As with Youth, the woodblock used to illustrate this play was a recycled one. When it was originally used for The Travailed Pilgrim (1585), the focus was on the foreground figure on the right, the allegorical character Understanding, who shows the work’s author “a number of Vertues [personified as women] in the house called Reason.” Here, reused on the title-page of actor Robert Wilson’s (d. 1600) The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, the woodcut is only relevant in the loosest of ways: it shows what looks like a stage with several ladies on it—more than the play’s titular three. The printer-publisher of The Travailed Pilgrim either died or retired in 1590, so Richard Jones (active 1564–1613) probably got the block at little or no expense. Its use on the title-page of Wilson’s play marks one of only three times before 1673 that an English playbook publisher used an illustration that explicitly zooms out from play characters and narrative action and depicts a performance in progress on a stage. (The other two illustrations showing stages appear in small sections of the engraved title-pages of William Alabaster’s Latin playbook, Roxana (1632), and Nathaniel Richardson’s Messallina (1640).)
Although Shakespeare’s most famous plays about English history had already been printed in the 1590s, the first edition of Thomas Heywood’s (ca. 1573–1641) If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody: Or, the Troubles of Queen Elizabeth (1605) was the first playbook to include a portrait of an English monarch. A copy of this edition at the Ransom Center survives as a stab-stitched pamphlet. In the portrait, Elizabeth sits on the throne, with orb-and-cross in one hand and scepter in the other.
The same year he published Heywood’s play about Elizabeth I, Nathaniel Butter (bap. 1583–1664) also published a play by Samuel Rowley (d. 1624) about another English ruler—none other than Henry VIII. Butter’s first edition of the Rowley play, though, did not include a portrait. It was only with this, the second edition, that he introduced one to the title-page. The infamous monarch’s pose here may be familiar from surviving copies of Hans Holbein the Younger’s (ca. 1497–1543) iconic but now lost painting. In those paintings, as here, Henry holds a glove in one hand and has the other closed near a dagger that hangs from his waist.
The characters featured on playbook title-pages did not have to be elites, as demonstrated in The Roaring Girl, a comedy that fictionalizes the life of Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse. As her nickname and the title of the play suggest, Frith was a notorious member of London’s underworld, a thief known for defying social conventions. Here, the illustration on this title-page shows Frith dressed as a man, “in doublet and breeches,” smoking a pipe and carrying a sword.
Mary Frith was alive when this play was written, first performed, and published, and there is a contemporary record stating that she actually appeared on stage at a public theatre and played music while dressed “in mans apparrell.” The epilogue printed as part of this playbook also promises a theatrical appearance by the real Moll Cut-Purse: “The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, / Shall on this stage give larger recompense.” On the basis of these two pieces of evidence, it has been suggested that the title-page woodcut may have been intended to represent Frith herself in a playhouse: perhaps the wood boards in the illustration are supposed to be the boards of a stage. Whether or not this was the case, well-versed play readers would have recognized the woodcut as yet another instance—though a particularly sensational one—in a century-old tradition of marketing playbooks by illustrating major characters.
When it was first published in 1615 on the title-page of the seventh surviving edition of The Spanish Tragedy, this woodcut was innovative. Where illustrations in the playbooks of the previous decade had focused on individual characters, the 1615 edition’s publishers chose instead to represent narrative action. As in the example of Youth, the earliest playbook illustrations can suggest aspects of plot, but they do so largely by juxtaposing characters. Here, instead, we get a more thoroughly realized scene—or, rather, a conflation of scenes. On the far left is the character Horatio, dead and hanging from a trellis. On the right, one of his murderers restrains Bel-Imperia, who has just witnessed the crime. On the left, again, the woodcut shows what happens after the murderers and Bel-Imperia leave: in a nightgown and with torch in hand, Hieronimo discovers his dead son.
A trellis, a torch, and a pair of swords would have been props well within the reach of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre companies, but despite this, and the fact that the title-page mentions that the version of the play inside is “as it hath of late beene… Acted,” the illustrator has made an effort to depict the scene as taking place on textured earth, not on a stage.
1615 marked the beginning of a boom in playbook illustrations of the new scenic type: between then and 1620, at least eight plays introduced narrative woodcuts to their title pages.
In 1616, the year after The Spanish Tragedy‘s publishers put a narrative illustration on its title-page, Christopher Marlowe’s (bap. 1594–1593) Doctor Faustus—another popular play in print—also got one. With the later edition here, the actual woodblock used to print the image was different from the one used in 1616, but it is a pretty close copy: in both, Doctor Faustus conjures the devil Mephistophilis, and other details of the scene have been pretty straightforwardly (if somewhat crudely) reproduced.
As in the illustration for The Spanish Tragedy, the artist of this woodcut has gone to the effort of situating Faustus and Mephistophilis in a non-theatrical space, in the narrative world of the Faustus story: the window, bookshelf, and other decor tell us that the action takes place in the Doctor’s study. Unlike the woodcut in The Spanish Tragedy, though, the one printed in the 1616 Faustus edition may not have been made specifically to illustrate a play. The block appears to have suffered damage before appearing in the 1616 playbook, and although its size and shape are right for a playbook title-page, it may have originally been used as part of a ballad version of the Faust story printed in a broadside (poster) format.
Arden of Faversham is another play that had previously been published without an illustration, first in 1592 and then in 1599. When the printer-publisher Elizabeth Allde (d. 1636) decided to issue a new edition, she included this woodcut, which shows the central scene of the play: the titular character is murdered by his wife, her lover, and two hired assassins. In 1551, this and other basic events in the play had actually happened, making Arden what we might think of today as a true-crime drama. Many scholars believe that a young Shakespeare helped write it.
Here, the woodcut is too wide to fit on a standard playbook title-page. To make it work, Allde has had to print it vertically, on the otherwise blank back of the title-page. The reason for the block’s odd fit is simple: with much more certainty than in the case of Doctor Faustus, we know that the publisher of Arden was reusing a block that had been designed for a broadside ballad. In a surviving edition of the broadside, the same woodcut used in this playbook spans two full columns of text.
A couple of years before acquiring the Arden ballad woodblock and investing in a new edition of that tragedy, Elizabeth Allde had published and illustrated this sixteenth-century play, a comedy. Its woodcut, too, is one that had been first used to print another work. In this instance, though, the woodcut was made not for a ballad but for a prose narrative, The Famous History of Friar Bacon. Allde had printed the 1629 edition of it.
By the sixteenth-century, the medieval scholar Roger Bacon (ca. 1214–1292?) had become known as a magician. In particular, he had become associated with a legend about the mechanical head represented at the center of this woodcut. When animated by supernatural forces through the efforts of Bacon and his contemporary, Thomas Bungay (active 1270–1283), the brass head was supposed to protect England by surrounding it with a brass wall. In this comic retelling, things don’t go as planned: the head speaks only the three lines printed in the woodcut before falling and shattering on the floor.
When Allde published Robert Greene’s (bap. 1558–1592) play in 1630, it had not been published since the first edition of 1594, but multiple editions of both The Spanish Tragedy and Doctor Faustus had suggested that a new illustration could be used to breathe life into an old play. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay failed to become a bestseller, but it did receive one more seventeenth-century edition, in 1655.
A recent acquisition, the Center’s copy of this illustrated playbook is a little misleading. When it was originally sold, the leaf with the full-page woodcut on it would have come after the title-page, with the image itself facing a short poem meant to explain it. Like the one in The Spanish Tragedy, the woodcut here appears to have been made specifically for this edition of William Sampson’s (b. 1599/1600–1655+) The Vow Breaker. It, too, is a composite of multiple moments in the narrative. As in the illustration from 20 years earlier, the arrangement of scenes in this woodcut does not straightforwardly mirror the sequence of events in the play. In narrative order:
1) Having hanged himself because Anne has married another, young Bateman returns as a ghost to haunt her: “thinke on thy promise [to marry me],” he demands. 2) Under this vignette, Bateman’s father mourns in front of a portrait of his son. 3) At top right, Anne has just given birth to a daughter and worries that Bateman’s ghost will return to haunt her again. 4) Under the bedroom scene, then, Anne’s corpse rests next to the river that she has just drowned in after fleeing the ghost. Her father mourns.
The explanatory poem offers two moral takeaways from these events: 1) “Maides should beware in choise” and agree only to marry those they love, and 2) “Parents must not be rash” and force their children to marry for wealth.
This satire of common-law lawyers and legal jargon was written by George Ruggle (bap. 1575–1621/22), an academic at Cambridge University. When it was first performed there in 1615, King James I was an enthusiastic audience member, but the play did not see print until 1630, after Ruggle had died. Once published, Ignoramus proved relatively popular among readers: there were two editions in 1630, and further editions followed in 1658, 1659, 1668, and well into the eighteenth century.
The playbook’s frontispiece illustration depicts its titular character, Ignoramus, with his law books and manuscripts. “Currat lex,” he utters, “the law will run its course.” To give a sense of play’s influence, it was Ruggle’s less-than-ideal lawyer that brought the word
“ignoramus” into English as an insult.
Unlike the illustrations in the preceding books, the portrait of Ignoramus in his study was printed from a copper plate rather than a woodblock. The small format of this edition is also atypical for early playbooks. Where all of the playbooks to this point in this display were published in a format where four leaves or eight pages have been printed on a single sheet—for this reason they are known as quartos—this and other early editions of Ignoramus were issued in a format where 12 leaves or 24 pages were printed per sheet. Books in this latter format are called duodecimos.
Nicholas Okes (d. 1645) was no stranger to illustrated playbooks by the time he printed and published Thomas Heywood’s (ca. 1573–1641) two-part play, The Iron Age. Among others, he had printed The Roaring Girl (1611) for Thomas Archer, and The Four Prentices of London (1615) for another publisher, John Wright. The second of these, a play by Heywood, came out the same year as the first illustrated edition of The Spanish Tragedy and similarly includes a woodcut that depicts narrative action.
When Okes initially printed the first part of The Iron Age, the title-page did not include a woodcut. A few copies survive with the unadorned version, but this and most other copies indicate that Okes changed his mind and printed a new title page. Its illustration depicts an event mentioned in the title-page text: “The Combate betwixt Hector and Aiax.” With sky above and earth below, Hector stands in front of the city of Troy and its soldiers, and Ajax stands in front of the Achaean (Greek) camp and its soldiers.
All surviving copies of the second part of The Iron Age have a title-page woodcut. In it, Troy is in flames, Greeks are coming out of the famous Trojan horse, and Sinon and Thersites greet each other.
Critic and dramatist John Dennis (1658–1734) wrote in 1717 that Elkanah Settle’s (1648–1724) The Empress of Morocco was different “from all the Plays that had been ever published before. For it was the First Play that ever was sold in England for Two Shillings, and the First that was ever printed with Cuts.” By “Cuts,” Dennis means engravings or etchings printed from copper plates rather than woodcuts. At the time this edition was published, playbooks usually sold for only one shilling—here, the investment required to print the illustrations caused the price to double. A picture of London’s Dorset Garden Theatre faces the title-page, and five further images depict scenes from the play. Each scene illustration, including this one, was printed using two separate plates: one for the theatre’s proscenium arch, which was reused for all five, and one for the scene itself.
Despite the fact that some of this playbook’s illustrations appear to show things impossible on a stage—large stone ruins and flying devils—theatre historians believe that the “cuts” do in fact represent performances at Dorset Garden. The theatre was able to accommodate moveable painted backdrops and had the ability to move both actors and objects through the air. The 1590 edition of The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London had reused a woodcut to show actors on a stage, but in this edition of The Empress of Morocco, we for the first time see an effort to represent the technologies available in a particular English theatre.
It was only in the later seventeenth century with plays like Settle’s that the London stage was able to represent aspects of plays’ fictional worlds that readers had for decades been encountering on the pages of illustrated playbooks.
In 1623, 36 of Shakespeare’s plays were published together in a single edition, the famous First Folio. It proved successful enough that additional large-format editions followed in 1632, 1663/4, and 1685. Beginning with this edition of 1709, though, collected editions of Shakespeare shrunk. Instead of planning for the plays to be bound in a single volume, its publisher opted to split them across several smaller-format ones. He also decided to commission a copper-plate illustration to serve as the frontispiece of each play, making this early eighteenth-century edition the first illustrated Shakespeare.
Though more detailed than the narrative woodcuts in playbooks published during and in the immediate decades after Shakespeare’s lifetime—he died in 1616—these illustrations share with them a preference for plot over performance. As perhaps best exemplified by this illustration for The Tempest, they strive to represent location and action to an extent that exceeds even what would have been possible at a place like the Dorset Garden Theatre.
In the foreground, various demons conspire with lightning, thunder, and waves against a ship. One mast has already broken off, and both passengers and crew panic. In the background, the sorcerer Prospero directs the titular tempest from the shore of his island, wand raised to the sky.