Battling over 18th-century rights to Shakespeare

In working on the Shakespeare Collection NEH grant-funded project for the past year, I have learned more than I ever imagined possible regarding the history of eighteenth-century publishing, particularly the “Shakespeare copyrights” and ownership disputes between booksellers. The feud between booksellers Jacob Tonson and Robert Walker is just such an example.

In the early eighteenth century, the Tonson firm held the copyright for Shakespeare works, publishing fine editions by popular editors such as Alexander Pope and Nicholas Rowe. Due to the Copyright Act of 1709, any “rights” that the firm previously held expired in 1731. Regardless of the law, the Tonsons and the other proprietors continued to hold claim to the rights and they actively intimidated their competitors from trying their publishing luck with the Bard.

When in 1734 a small-time London bookseller named Robert Walker began to produce inexpensive duodecimo editions of the individual plays, Jacob Tonson II (Jr.) threatened Walker with litigation to cease production. Undeterred by Tonson’s threats, and eventual bribery, Walker called his bluff and continued to sell the plays, offering volume title pages for the plays to be bound in seven volumes, if desired. Realizing that he did not have any lawful recourse, Tonson counter-produced his own editions of the individual plays, to eventually be bound in eight volumes, publishing more copies, at a lower cost than Walker’s.

While trying to out-sell each other, the two booksellers took to issuing “advertisements” with their publications, in an attempt to defame the other. In this one, from Tonson’s 1734 edition of All’s Well That Ends Well, the advertisement warns readers that Walker’s editions are not only pirated, but false, including plays that are incomplete and, in some cases, not even by Shakespeare.

Tonson's "Advertisement," the last leaf of the volume

 

In other instances, Tonson hired the Drury Lane Theatre prompter William Chetwood to denounce Walker’s editions. Walker countered Tonson and Chetwood’s attack in his publication of The Puritan with his own advertisement, stating that Tonson’s claim was “Foolish, False, and Scandalous…” and giving detailed examples of Tonson’s errors.

Walker's "Advertisement," recto of leaf following The Puritan

 

Walker's "Advertisement," verso of leaf following The Puritan

The booksellers continued their acrimonious dispute and libelous attacks well into 1735, when Jacob Tonson II died, followed soon-after by his uncle, Jacob Tonson I (Sr.). Even though this competition resulted in a loss of profits for the Tonson firm, the sheer volume of cheap plays produced, in a similar format and layout, out-numbered and out-sold those of Walker. Their dispute and over-publication resulted in flooding the market with inexpensive plays and making Shakespeare available to the masses for the first time.

For further reading on the Tonson-Walker affair, refer to:

Dawson, Giles E. Four centuries of Shakespeare publication. Lawrence, University of Kansas Libraries, 1964. Pages 12-15.

Dugas, Don-Jon. Marketing the bard : Shakespeare in performance and print, 1660-1740. Columbia, Mo. : University of Missouri Press, c2006. Pages 213-230.

Ford, H.L. Shakespeare, 1700-1740; a collation of the editions and separate plays, with some account of T. Johnson and R. Walker. Oxford, Printed at the University Press, 1935. Pages 33-37; 40-45.

Murphy, Andrew. Shakespeare in print : a history and chronology of Shakespeare publishing. Cambridge UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pages 107-110.

 

Author: Carrie Smith

CARRIE SMITH was the Rare Book Cataloger for the NEH-funded Shakespeare Collection project from August 2010 through June 2013. She earned an MLS from Indiana University and studied Art History at Miami University of Oxford, OH. She is now a "roving" library technician for various Smithsonian History & Culture Libraries, including NMAI, MSC, and NMAH.

2 Comments

  1. Just a quick message – I recently bought several copies of Tonson’s Shakespeare at auction. I must admit I was taken in by the 1635 date. The covers are in a poor state but on finding that advert the set became quite facinating – so this is just a thank you for shedding more light on the matter.

  2. Pingback: A Muse of Fire – Shakespeare Interleaved

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