Did Shakespeare's playing company own his plays?

That the Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's company, would have owned his plays and this was the reason why he wouldn't have cared for their printing has been so often expressed and repeated as to have acquired almost the status of an axiom. But it has acquired this status merely by repetition, not by an examination of the case worth that name. In his book The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare's Time 1590-1642 (Princeton: PUP, 1971, p. 280) Gerald E. Bentley divides the dramatists of the period between 1590 and 1642 into three categories.

  1. In the first category he places the "amateurs", authors who only occasionally wrote plays, for instance for performance at court or at the universities. Or who wrote plays not for the public stage but rather for performance in closed circles, so-called "closet plays".
  2. In the second category he places some of the most illustrious and copious authors, eg Ben Jonson, George Chapman, John Webster. Though they were professionals living of their pen they were not uniquely playwrights and, above all, they were not writing for a single theatre company.
  3. The third category are what Bentley calls the "attached or regular professionals". Within a given period, which does not necessarily cover the whole of their career, these professionals would have stood in a contractual or contract-like relationship with one particular theatre company for which they exclusively wrote during that period. Only seven playwrights can be said to belong to the third category: William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Thomas Dekker (1570-1632), Thomas Heywood (1574-1641), John Fletcher (1579-1625), Philip Massinger (1583-1640), Richard Brome (1590-1652 or 1653), and James Shirley (1596-1666).

Except for Richard Brome, no such contract survives, if ever any existed for the remaining six authors of this category. It is exclusively to this third category Bentley refers in the following statement: "In this period of the highest development of the English drama, the basic fact in the situation of the professional dramatists is that they were the employees of the acting companies. The relationship could take various forms, but it was always the acting company which the dramatist had to please first; it was the acting company which paid him eventually; and it was the acting company, which, under normal circumstances, controlled what we should call the copyright of his play." One shudders at Bentley's use of the word "copyright". Peter W. Blayney emits a strong warning against the use of this word for the 16th and 17th centuries: ""Modern notions of literary property would not apply: what is being sold is a manuscript, not what we now call a copyright (an eighteenth-century innovation)." (Peter W. M. Blayney. "The Publication of Playbooks" in John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan (eds.). A New History of Early English Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 394).  But if what an author sold to a publisher was but a manuscript and nothing more, what, then, could a playwright sell to a theatre company? Fortunately, Bentley himself provides us, unvoluntarily, with a clue:  "The dramatist sold his manuscript to the acting company for which it had been prepared; after that it was no more his than the cloak that he might have sold to the actors at the same time." (p. 82) Again: what could a playing company have acquired more than a publisher? Otherwise put: if a publisher could acquire from a playwright nothing beyond a manuscript which he could sell, how could a playing company acquire from a playwright something more, namely a "copyright", beyond the manuscript of a play it could stage? It looks as if Gerald Bentley, a highly meritorious literary scholar, is unable to think the case juridically through.

But let us turn to the case of the playwright Richard Brome, the only one for whom evidence of a contractual relationship is extant. The full contract, however, is lost, but parts of it were quoted in a lawsuit brought against him by his company for breach of contract. In 1635 Richard Brome and the Salisbury Court theatre company entered into a contract  which was renewed with minor amendments  in 1638. From the lawsuit the following can be learnt:

In 1635 it was stipulated that Brome "should not nor would write any play or any part of a play to any other players or playhouse, but apply all his study and endeavors therein for the benefit of the said company of the said playhouse." (p. 114) The clause was reiterated in other words in the contract of 1638: "And that he should not write, invent or compose any play tragedy or comedy or any part thereof for any other playhouse." (p. 115) So far, so clear. What about publishing those plays? The contract stipulated that Brome "should not suffer any play made or to be made or composed by him for your subjects or their successors in the said company in Salisbury Court to be printed by his consent or knowledge, privity, or direction without the license from the said company or the major part of them." (p. 266)

The first question to be asked is: assuming that all the rights, whatever they be, passed from the author Brome to the playing company at Salisbury Court, why was such a special contract necessary? Regarding publication it is stated that Brome should first ask the licence or permission of the company. We should note that it is NOT stated that the playing company WOULD not suffer one of Brome's plays to be printed. It is very well Brome himself who SHOULD not suffer, that is to print on his own volition, give his consent for the printing of one of his plays or, being privy to it, should not wink at the printing or should not let pass the printing, otherwise said: that Brome would have to intervene with the Stationers' Company on behalf of the company. Which again means that the company itself  had no means at all of preventing a publisher from printing one of Brome's plays. Only a complaint by Brome, the author himself, could, according to the rules of the Stationers' Company, could stay the printing and publication of a play of his. The ownership of a playing company was not recognized by the stationers.

The consequences are devastating for the orthodox creed. Indeed, the Lord Chamberlain's Men would have been in a most favorable position with Shakespeare the player cum shareholder cum playwright in their midst. Hence, if the Chamberlain's/King's Men did not want to see their plays go into print, all they had to do was to ask their fellow and playwright Shakespeare to do exactly that what the Salibury Court company asked  their playwright Richard Brome to do. And this would have been even more directly in the interest of the shareholder cum playwrigth Shakespeare. 

Another case, though somewhat different from Brome's, is sometimes referred to (among others with great aplomb by Irvin Matus) to underscore the powerful position of an acting company but in fact illustrates the not so powerless position of the author. On 10 March 1608 an agreement was made between the shareholders of the Children of the King's Revels. "The agreement stipulated that none of the sharers "is to print any of the play-books, 'except the booke of Torrismount, and that playe not to be printed by any before twelve months be fully expired' The syndicate did not hold together long. It will be noticed that, in spite of the attempt in the articles to bar the printing of plays, these had begun to reach the stationers again as early as April 1608." (Edmund K. Chambers. The Elizabethan Stage. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1923, Vol. II, pp. 64-8) We have again a striking example of a misunderstanding owed to the neglect of the role of the author. The agreement was between the sharers, NOT between the sharers and the AUTHOR. It is simply not exact to state that plays were soon published "in spite of the attempt to bar the printing of the plays". The syndicate of shareholders was composed of "Martin Slater, who is described as citizen and ironmonger of London, but is, of course, well known as actor in the Admiral's and other companies. The bill [of complaint, like in the case of Brome and the Salisbury Court company, the information cropped up in a suit] incorporates the terms of Articles of Agreement entered into on 10 March 1608 by Slater on the one hand and Barry, Androwes, and Drayton, together with William Trevell, William Cooke, Edward Sibthorpe, and John Mason, all of London, gentlemen, on the other." Michael Drayton, Mason and Barry were at the same time authors. Michael Drayton probably never wrote a play for the company; at any rate he never published one. Barry and Mason did publish plays written for the company, the former The Turk, entered in the Stationers' Register on 10 March 1609, one year after the agreement, the latter Ram Alley, entered on 9 November 1610 and published in 1611. Other plays had been published before, two before the agreement, three shortly after, namely " Day's Humour Out Of Breath (1608, S.R. 12 April 1608), Markham's (and Machin's) The Dumb Knight (1608, S.R. 6 October 160), and Armin's Two Maids of More-clack (1609)."[1] But the authors John Day, Gervase Markham, and Robert Armin were not parties to the agreement and by no means bound by it. The case and the way it is sometimes commented upon graphically shows how the confusion created by the representation of the players as "rightful owners" to whom the author would have lost any right thwarts getting the facts straight.   

© R. Detobel

[1] Ibid., p. 66.