Sunday, December 26, 2010

Notes on "The Craft of Printing and the Publication of Shakespeare's Works - Chapter 1

On the heels of Massai's work, and in the wake of McKerrow's speech, I'm continuing my readings on Shakespeare in print with George Walton Williams' The Craft of Printing and the Publication of Shakespeare's Works. Lacking Shakespeare's papers, we can only view his works through print, but Shakespeare in print was a product of the intramural collaborations of the early modern playhouse and and print house, and the collaboration between these two highly collaborative worlds. I'm hoping Williams' book will give me a little bit more insight into the print house world.

This first chapter is titled "The Invention of Printing."

The renaissance mind thought of printing as a way of conquering time. The earliest depiction of a printing press is in the 1499 La grant dans macabre, published in Lyons, shows three figures of death taking a compositor, a pressman, and a bookseller performing their work. Likewise, a 1567 French illustration (printed in Poitiers) of a printing press in La Fauconnerie de messire Arthelouche contains two mottoes: vitam mortuo reddo ("I restore life from death") and je ravie le mort ("I despoil death") (15).

The 1578 Book of Christian Prayers contains the motto "We Printers wrote with wisedome's pen: / She lives for aye, we die as men." (15).

Prior to the development of the printing press, books were transmitted through copies created by scribes one word at a time. A form of mass production of texts was possible with a single individual reading aloud from a book while multiple scribes write down what they hear. Either of these forms of textual transmission were slow, tedious, costly, and subject to human error. The time and monetary cost involved limited the production of books to those that were of special importance or significance to the producers (19).

"Though it is easy to say that Gutenberg invented printing, it is not so easy to define what that invention actually was; for the invention of printing depended not on the contrivance of a single mechanical device but on the development of several devices, techniques, and elements and on the synthesis of them all" (20).

The idea of movable type existed before Gutenberg, but he invented a practical process for doing so (20 - 21).

The earliest printed document from Gutenberg's print shop is a Papal Indulgence from 1454; other early works include selections from school books, calendars, and scraps of poetry (21).

In November of 1455, Johannes Fust, Gutenberg's financier, foreclosed on the print shop, which continued operation without Gutenberg and printed the "Gutenberg Bible" in 1455 or early 1456 (21).

Between 1450 - 1500, the first 50 years of printing, more than 8 million books were printed in Western Europe, roughly 1/3 of them illustrated. This level of book production was unprecedented in the history of the world (23).

On 9 August 1516, a scholarly collector in Bologna wrote to a book seller in Leipzig -- 500 miles away, over the Alps and across a national boundary -- to order a book; he received the book less than 2 weeks later on 22 August 1516 (27 - 29).


It might go without saying, but printing changed the course of European history. We traditionally credit the invention of printing to Gutenberg, and while the idea of movable type printing was not new, Gutenberg synthesized several technologies to make printing practical for large scale endeavors. The mass production of a text in printed form helps ensure that texts survival, and thus thinkers and practitioners came to see themselves as achieving a kind of immortality: their words would survive through the ages.


Williams, George Walton. The Craft of Printing and the Publication of Shakespeare's Works. Washington: Folger Books. 1985. Print.

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