Putting Speech into Print

London at the turn of the 16th century was becoming a melting pot of different cultures, both oral and literate people made up the society with approximately 80% of the city’s population were illiterate. The technological advance of the printing started by Gutenberg a century earlier created an expanding book market in London for those who could read, and almost as an offshoot of this fondness for reading, playhouses became increasing popular. The theatre became a public place, similar in purpose but different in content from the Protestant churches throughout the country. Playgoers could gather to learn about England’s history, discover legends and myths from other countries, and witness the moral development of human in particularly harrowing situations. Actors and playwrights were making use of a relatively new technology, print, while exploiting an even newer technology, playhouses, to profit from the public interest in plays. As Chandler (1994) mentions the “great variety of modes of ‘orality’ and ‘literacy’ within a single society” (para. 11) like London, perhaps the most famous example in the English language is the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, particularly the infinite variety of ideas communicated written by William Shakespeare.

View from the second tier

View of the Globe stage from second tier

Nick Hornby (2008), an English author and bibliophile, writes sardonically “Shakespeare wrote for money” (44) and such monetary matters are confirmed by the words of fellow player and Globe Theatre shareholder Augustine Phillips: when questioned by Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council in connection to an attempted coup by the Earl of Essex (who had hired the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform a play about the deposing of an English monarch), Phillips apologetically explained that their involvement was only for the money, not politically motivated (Rasmussen, 2011). Ben Jonson, another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries as well as a rival playwright, published collection of his works in 1616 for what Stephen Greenblatt (2010) calls “important regulative function” (121) upon society, rather than the purely get-yer-money’s-worth entertainment provided by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Shakespeare wrote plays for actors to perform, and as the leading players in London, later to accept the royal patronage of King James I and becoming the King’s Men in 1603, they were well established among the audience of literate and illiterate alike. And yet for future biographers and scholars, an overly literate audience, there are frustratingly few authentic documents in Shakespeare handwriting, and no purpose as grand as Jonson’s other than what can be gleamed from the plays as future generations have them in print. Unlike Jonson, Shakespeare never printed copies of his play, despite several bootleg copies of his plays and poems known as quarto being available in bookstores. “The normal condition for plays at this time,” Hartman (2011) explains, “was to be lost” – printed more for the actor’s sake than the book-buying public. James Shapiro (2005) writes that these plays were written neither for the mind’s-eye nor the printed page, but rather for the “aptly named [Globe Theatre] where his plays came to life and mattered” (319) to both literate and illiterate alike.

My first woodcut image

My visit to the Globe Theatre, in woodcut

It wasn’t until several years after Shakespeare died that the last surviving members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the younger members King’s Men still continuing to perform plays by Shakespeare as well as those of other playwrights) decided to publish a collection of plays written by their friend and business partner. The First Folio, as it has now known by Shakespeare scholars, is a monument of literature in many ways as well as being the world’s most expensive book (Collins, 2009), but also stands as a curious example of the bridge between London’s oral and literate culture. In terms of James O’Donnell (1998) notion of words being frozen into one pattern for the subsequent generations of readers, the four different editions of the folio text features a range of differences from minor typographical corrections to the inclusion of entire plays not found in earlier editions; therefore having a permanent, or even firm, grasp of what the original words would have looked like becomes more and more elusive the closer one examines the printing process. My own theory about how the plays, all those orally-transmitted words from mouths of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, became the printed resources know as the Complete Works of William Shakespeare has less to do with the genius of one single person, or even the machination of an empire in the making (as British colonization of the rest of the world made use of the culture capital of Shakespeare). Instead, I agree with Jonah Lerher (2012) view of creativity: Elizabethan London wasted less of its population’s talent, and it is being in the position as a bridge between oral and literate cultures that the legacy of Lord Chamberlain’s Men lives on.


Chandler, D. (1994). ‘Biases of the ear and eye: “Great divide” theories, phonocentrism, graphocentrism & logocentrism’. Accessed on September 27, 2012 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/litoral/litoral.html.

Collins, P. (2009). The book of Will: How Shakespeare’s First Folio conquered the world. New York: Bloomsbury USA.

Greenblatt, S. (2010). Shakespeare’s freedom. Chicago: U of Chicago P.

Hartman, M. (2011). Personal interview. Burnaby.

Hornby, N. (2008). Shakespeare wrote for money. San Francisco: Believer Books.

Lerher, J. (2012). Imagine: How creativity works. RSA Lecture, accessed on September 29, 2012 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ufnp89NOreI.

Rasmussen, E. (2011). Shakespeare thefts: In search of the First Folios. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shapiro, J. (2005). 1599: A year in the life of William Shakespeare. London, Faber and Faber.

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1 Response to Putting Speech into Print

  1. smyers says:

    This was an interesting read! The quote about the written versions of plays being for the benefit of the actors rather than for a literate society to read was interesting. I hadn’t considered that, but of course, at the time, plays were to be spoken, not read. Thanks for sharing your research. I like the personal woodcut too. Nice touch!

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