King's College London
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'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

William Stansby, printer

In Shakespeare’s time the English book trade was almost entirely confined to London. The Stationers’ Company, whose members exercised a monopoly over printing and publishing, had been granted a royal charter in 1557, partly to assist the state in the suppression of seditious texts, and in 1586 a Star Chamber decree prohibited the operation of a printing press outside the capital (exemptions from this prohibition were granted to the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge).

The concept of author’s copyright was more or less non-existent; such rights to a text as did pertain were invested in the publisher, who secured them by entering details of the work in the Stationers’ Company register prior to publication. The Company thus possessed a tight grip on the nation’s printed output, though literary piracy was not uncommon.

The London book trade was a small and closely knit community; Philip Gaskell estimates that in 1600 there were some 40 presses in London, operated by a total of around 175 printers. Nowadays there is generally a clear demarcation between the performers of the three prime functions of the book trade – printing, publishing and bookselling – but in Shakespeare’s time these lines of responsibility were more blurred.

Printers were often also publishers, either on their own account or, more commonly, as members of small publishing syndicates. They might also sell books from their printing shops. Publishers were often also general retail booksellers, selling a wide range of English and imported books. There were also binders, who bound books for publishers, booksellers and private customers, but who might also operate retail bookshops.

Title page with woodcut trade device of a birdTitle page with woodcut trade device of a birdThe image here shows a typical example of an English printed book of Shakespeare’s day.  It is a 1612 edition of an influential work on the English constitution by the politician and diplomat Sir Thomas Smith (1513-77). 

The imprint statement at the foot of the title page gives details of the book’s publication. The printer, William Stansby (1572?-1638) is best known for printing the first edition of the works of Ben Jonson (see the later section on Shakespeare’s literary contemporaries), but was also responsible for printing works by Francis Bacon, John Donne, Walter Raleigh and Michael Drayton.

Until 1610 he was in partnership with John Windet, the printer with whom he had served his apprenticeship, and they concentrated on popular religious works with long print runs. Following Windet’s death, however, Stansby shifted the focus of the business, investing in founts of specialist type, such as Anglo-Saxon, Greek and even Japanese, and specialising in literary and historical works in smaller print runs. 

Stansby frequently worked in collaboration with the publisher and bookseller, John Smethwick (d 1641) and the imprint statement for this book indicates the dual nature of Smethwick’s role; the book was printed ‘for’ him (as publisher, he commissioned and funded its production) and it was sold at his shop. The location of Smethwick’s shop, ‘S Dunstanes church-yard, under the dyall’, lies a couple of minutes’ walk from the Maughan Library, on the north side of Fleet Street, one of the historical centres of the London book trade. Above the imprint statement is a woodcut of Smethwick’s trade device; a play on his name, it shows a bird (presumably a smew, a type of waterfowl) holding in its beak a banner with the word ‘wick’ on it .

Stansby and Smethwick also collaborated in issuing editions of some of Shakespeare’s plays. In 1607, upon the death of publisher Cuthbert Burby, Smethwick acquired the rights to Hamlet, Love’s labour’s lost, Romeo and Juliet and The taming of the shrew, and editions of these plays were printed for him by Stansby in 1625, 1631, 1622 and 1631, respectively. These dates suggest that the publication in 1623 of the First Folio (of which Smethwick was a co-publisher) had increased the readership for the plays, making their separate publication commercially viable for their rights holder.

In this exhibition


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