The types of books that an individual bookseller sold provides a context in which one can read a given text. Locating the printed text of a Shakespearean play in its original native environment, the bookstalls of St. Paul's Churchyard, will help the modern practitioner establish the context in which to perform the play. Arthur Johnson's specialization in comic plays such as The Merry Devil of Edmonton, for example, is complemented by the anti-Catholic pamphlets, apologies for the Church of England, psalters, and true crime books he also sold. While the materials available in Johnson's stall will not tell a modern practitioner how to read Merry Devil, they will provide the context necessary to help said practitioner understand how their early modern counterpart read the play.
Before locating the printed text of Shakespeare, one must necessarily define what qualifies as a Shakespearean text. Simple attribution to the hand of William Shakespeare cannot qualify as a standard of judgement, as the King's Men's pursuit of an injunction against the printing of their plays appears to be a direct response to Pavier's attempt to publish Shakespeare's works (Jowett 71). The Lord Chamberlain's edict established the King's Men as the only legitimate (in the legal sense) authors of a text that we might describe as “Shakespearean."
If every text that we ascribe to Shakespeare can only be properly authorized by the King's Men, the opposite is also true: every play authorized by the King's Men must be regarded as Shakespearean. While trying to locate the hand of Shakespeare in every text authorized by the King's Men would be futile, Shakespeare, as a sharer in the company, perhaps as the chief literary authority of the company, would necessarily authorize every text printed by the company. The ascription of a text to the hand of Shakespeare makes it no less Burbagean or Slyean if it was a product of the King's Men. The legal framework of the Stationer's Company, under injunction of the Lord Chamberlain, provided that only the King's Men could authorize the printing of their plays, but this could only be an extension of a system of production of play texts that recognized the text as the product of a company effort. In the eyes of crown law, The Merry Devil of Edmonton must be regarded every bit as “Shakespearean” as The Merry Wives of Windsor, both of which were printed for the book seller Arthur Johnson.
While an examination of The Merry Wives of Windsor no doubt would prove insightful, The Merry Devil of Edmonton has a more interesting and more traceable history in Johnson's shop. According to the Short Title Catalogue, Johnson had printed Merry Wives in 1602 and 1619. Whether he simply ordered too many copies in 1602 or Merry Wives experienced a resurgence in popularity seventeen years later, there is too much time between printings to determine with what Merry Wives might have shared shelf space. The four years between the first printing of Merry Devil in 1608 and the second printing in 1612 (revealed by their title pages), provides a more reasonable range for analysis. It is entirely possible that Johnson ordered printings to coincide with surges in popularity, but given Laurie Maguire's description of the printing process as “neither a rapid nor a simple operation” this is unlikely (445). Given that Johnson would order a third printing of Merry Devil in 1617, it is plausible he ordered stock to last for several years; certainly if Merry Devil did not sell with some regularity between 1608, 1612, and 1617, it is unlikely that Johnson would have ordered these subsequent printings at an apparently regular interval. To determine what other books Johnson's customers might have had to choose from at the same time the first quarto of Merry Devil was for sale, it is therefore necessary to examine a span of time that predates the printing of that quarto by several years.
For the purposes of this examination, I chose to look at the materials printed for Arthur Johnson between 1605 and 1611. This includes enough of a range to determine what older materials might have remained in Johnson's stacks as the first quarto of Merry Devil came into print, and would have included new works that came into print leading up to the second printing in 1612. A search of the Short Title Catalog yields 34 distinct records of materials either printed for or to be sold by Johnson within this range (see attached). Taken together, the materials Johnson had for sale help establish the context for the printed text of Merry Devil's first quarto, and for reading the play today.
Of the 34 books that Johnson had printed for his shop between 1605 and 1611, eight of them were anti-Catholic/pro-protestant treatises, seven were religious commentaries, six were comic plays, three were instruction manuals, sermons, and poetry collections, two were true crime pieces, and there was one psalter and one non-dramatic tragi-comedy. Even within this catalogue of titles, context is necessary for meaningful analysis. All of the plays Johnson sold were comedies, which is especially noteworthy given that he sold two non-dramatic true crime pieces; a genre that was represented in certain dramatic works of the time. While Johnson clearly did not have ambitions to specialize in plays, his specialization in the comic genre of play texts indicates that his customers of The Arraignment, Judgement, Confession, and Execution of Humfrey Stafford, Gentleman, and The Bloody Mother very likely had tastes that were both specific and different from his other customers. If this is true, the forensic bibliographer would do well to look more closely at Johnson's other play-texts as points of comparison without regard to the texts from other genres that he sold.
Just as Johnson's reluctance to carry true-crime play texts may indicate a separation of his customers, the bibliographic evidence might also suggest deliberate cross marketing between readers of religious materials and readers of comedies. Divided into the genres I have outlined, anti-Catholic treatises, religious commentaries, and comedies all account for similar percentages of Johnson's printing between 1605 and 1611. Among the comedies, two deal very directly with religious figures: The Jesuits Comedy and Merry Devil. A cross comparison of the religious texts Johnson sold with Merry Devil may therefore prove illuminating.
It comes as little surprise that religious material comprised more than half of the books that Johnson sold, but the anti-Catholic nature of the significant portion of those materials takes on special significance when sold next to The Merry Devil, wherein the poaching hedge-priest Sir John is one of the principle clowns. All religious figures in Merry Devil are duped in some way, and Chesson Nunnery itself becomes the tool of a parsimonious parent. Certainly the romantic comedy takes the fore, but especially in light of the anti-Catholic treatises that Johnson sold at about the same time, it is difficult not to read The Merry Devil as a satire of the Roman Catholic Church where the ineptitude of the clergy helps create the happy ending.
Perhaps as illuminating as the cross-genre marketing of comedies that satirize the Catholic church are the instances of texts that received multiple printings within the seven year period of this examination. Cupids Whirligig was printed in 1607, and then again in 1611, which parallels almost precisely the printing schedule between the first Merry Devil quarto in 1608 and the second in 1612. The other title Johnson had printed twice within this period was A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen, a manual on “preserving, conserving, and candying;” first in 1608 and then again in 1611. While the multiple printings of Cupid's Whirligig will help to reinforce Johnson as a purveyor of comic plays, the success of A Closet for Ladies emphasizes the practical, domestically inclined nature of at least some of his customers. Since he did seek to specialize in this particular genre, it would be logical to infer that A Closet for Ladies was printed in service of his already existing clientele. Given that Merry Devil is a domestic comedy, one may need look no further than the text of the play for a picture of Johnson's customers, and its original audience.
It is noteworthy that of the six comedies Johnson had printed within this range of time, only Merry Devil was a King's Men play. The Phoenix and Michaelmas Term were both “acted by the Children of Paules” (a direct quote from both of their title pages), Cupids Whirligig by the Children of the Kings Majesties Revels (see title page), and The Jesuits Comedy was “acted at Lyons in France” (see title page). If Merry Wives was not also available during this time, Merry Devil would have been the only play Johnson sold that was performed by an adult company in London. Merry Devil and Merry Wives are structurally comparable in several ways; they're both romantic comedies, both domestic comedies, both present mystical figures in the resolution, and both feature an Epicurean Sir John. These similarities likely did not escape Johnson, and the fact that Merry Devil received more printings would suggest that either Johnson severely over-printed Merry Wives, or that in print if not on stage, Merry Devil was the more popular play. This may not affect a modern staging of the play, but it might help to inspire a modern staging of what has become a comparatively neglected work.
Perhaps the most consistent thread woven into theatrical performance throughout the history western theatre is that audiences like to see themselves on stage. A bibliography of Arthur Johnson's book shop, circa 1608, will help the modern director better understand the text of The Merry Devil of Edmonton. This is perhaps true of works surrounding any printing, but the popularity of Merry Devil provided for its multiple printings over the course of a decade. These printings provide benchmark dates from which the modern bibliographer can weigh the contents of Johnson's shop, and perhaps gain insight into the original readers of the text. If modern audiences enjoy seeing themselves on stage as much as the King's Men's did, valuable evidence of who these audiences were can be observed in the records of the books they may have purchased along with The Merry Devil.
The Arraignment, Judgement, Confession, and Execution of Humfrey Stafford, Gentleman. London. E. Allde. 1607. Early English Books Online. Accessed 14 Oct. 2010.
A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen. London. F. Kingston. 1608. Early English Books Online. Accessed 14 Oct. 2010.
–. London. 1611. Early English Books Online. Accessed 14 Oct. 2010.
The Jesuits Comedy. London. E. Allde. 1607. Early English Books Online. Accessed 15 Oct. 2010.
Jowett, John. Shakespeare and Text. Oxford. Oxford UP. 2007.
Maguire, Laurie E. “The Craft of Printing (1600).” A Companion to Shakespeare, ed. David Scott Kastan. Blackwell. 1999.
The Merry Devil of Edmonton. Henry Ballard. London. 1608. Early English Books Online. Accessed 26 Sept. 2009.
--. Henry Ballard. London. 1612. Early English Books Online. Accessed 14 Oct. 2010.
Middleton, Thomas. Michaelmas Term. London. Thomas Purfoot and Edward Allde. 1608. Early English Books Online. Accessed 15 Oct. 2010.
–. The Phoenix. London. Edward Allde. 1607. Early English Books Online. Accessed 15 Oct. 2010.
Pantzer, Katherine. “Johnson, Arthur.” A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland, and of English Books Printed Abroad 1475 – 1640. First compiled by A.W. Pollard and G.R. Redgrave. Vol. 3. London. The Bibliographical Society. 1991.
Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. London. T[homas] C[reede]. 1602. Early English Books Online. Accessed 14 Oct. 2010.
–. The Merry Wives of Windsor. London. William Jaggard. 1619. Early English Books Online. Accessed 15 Oct 2010.
Sharpham, Edward. Cupids Whirligig. London. E. Allide. 1607. Early English Books Online. Accessed 14 Oct. 2010.
–. Cupids Whirligig. London. T. C[reede]. 1611. Early English Books Online. Accessed 14 Oct. 2010
T.B. The Bloody Mother. London. John Busbie. 1610. Early English Books Online. Accessed 14 Oct. 2010.