Thursday, December 30, 2010

Notes on "The Alleged Popularity of Playbooks"

Blayney challenges Farmer and Lesser's "The Popularity of Playbooks Revisited" in this article; he perceives Farmer and Lesser's impetus being a case of simple overstatement of what Blayney himself wrote in "The Publication of Playbooks," but still feels that Farmer and Lesser's argument does not hold up "historically, logically, and mathematically" (33).

For the purposes of this article, and answering Farmer and Lesser's charge, Blayney has shifted his metric from play texts to play books, and notes that so considered "the most immediately pertinent difference is that although 40.8 percent of plays were reprinted within twenty-five years, the figure for playbooks is only 32.4 percent" (34).

A printer was more often than not simply hired by a publisher; cases in which the printer was a partner in the process should be regarded as exceptional (36).

Farmer and Lesser are correct in setting aside official publications, "advertisements, blank forms, privately printed petitions, and the like" not because they were commonly printed, but because they were never intended to be sold to the general public vis-a-vie booksellers (36).

Farmer and Lesser should not have been so quick to discount books printed for the secret, Catholic presses because it would be "unhistorical" to presume that those books were printed to be given away en masse to prospective converts: they were printed to be sold to the faithful (36).

Blayney's original figures for the ratio of printed playbooks to other books do not drastically differ from Farmer and Lesser's (37).

While Farmer and Lesser make the claim that they will demonstrate that playbooks were far more popular than Blayney describes, they instead arrive at the conclusion that "playbooks were hardly marginal" (37).

Patented books, in general, were subject to the sam restrictions of the Stationer's Company as other books; only royal proclamations were exempt from the limit of 1000-1500 copies per edition (38).

While it may be true that monopolies eliminated competition for some classes of books, Farmer and Lesser's claim is an exaggeration: indeed, the power these monopolies exerted was an exaggeration in the late sixteenth century as well (38 - 39).

"The only class patents that really prevented anyone from publishing new books they might have wanted to publish were those for musical part-books and for almanacs" (39).

By considering books published for the captive audiences of churches, students, and lawyers, Farmer and Lesser ignore the possibility that these books could have been purchased by anyone should they wish to have their own private copy to study from or use during a church service (39).

"Market share in the real world is not always greatly affected by what publishers (sometimes wrongly) think will sell, and is not determined at all by what academics subsequently chose to study. What counts is what the customers actually buy" (40). Amen.

To the claim that more than twice the percentage of playbooks was reprinted than the percentage of sermons, Blayney says that Farmer and Lesser "ignore an elementary arithmetical truism that completely vitiates their main conclusion. Simply put, a small percentage of a large number can be much bigger than a large percentage of a small number." 32.5% of 345 playbooks means that 112 playbooks were printed in a second-plus edition, whereas 17.5% of 1328 sermons means that 232 sermon-books were given second-plus editions (43).

The fallacy of Farmer and Lesser's argument is built on comparing percentages without regard to the actual values they represent. When examining real numbers of printed plays verses sermons, as either books or texts, sermons consistently outsell plays by a wide margin (44).

"Of the 151 known publishers [of playbooks], eighty-four (55.6 percent) died before seeing a single reprint" (46).

"Unless we recognize and accept just how massively important godly books were to early modern readers, we will never fully understand the background of the dramatic literature we now value so much more than they did" (47).


Blayney pretty damningly refutes some key points of Farmer and Lesser's article.


Blayney, Peter W. M. "The Alleged Popularity of Playbooks." Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 56, No. 1. Spring 2005. p 33 - 50.

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