Playbooks and their Readers

For our reading group in June 2022, we discussed a chapter from Hannah August’s very recently-published Playbooks and their Readers (2022) chosen by Lily Freeman-Jones. In this reading group we looked at Chapter Four, titled ‘How were plays read? Part Two: Using, marking, annotating’. This chapter deals with marginalia in early modern printed playbooks, examining it to assess what we can learn from it. Lily provided the abstract for the chapter and book below, as well as some prompts to get us started.

  • What are your current conceptions of early modern playbook readers, if you have them? How does this chapter change them?
  • What interests or surprises you most about this chapter? 
  • What further questions does it leave you with?

Chapter abstract: This chapter considers the historical evidence of early modern playreading that is constituted by manuscript marks and marginalia left by anonymous early readers in extant playbooks. As in the previous chapter, the implications of this type of evidence are compared and contrasted with those of the material and paratextual aspects of playbooks discussed in the book’s first two chapters. The present chapter draws conclusions from a survey of over five hundred playbooks, examining in turn three different categories of marks and marginalia: those that respond to the object of the playbook and its material features; those that respond to its text or paratext without demonstrating an awareness of the play’s origin in performance; and those that can be construed – although rarely conclusively – as acknowledging printed commercial drama’s latent theatricality. The dearth of examples of marks and marginalia in this last category contributes to the chapter’s ultimate conclusion: that early modern playreaders most often consumed printed professional plays in the same way they did other non-dramatic texts, rather than responding to them as a distinctive genre characterised by its past, present, or potential performability.

Book abstract: This book is the first comprehensive examination of commercial drama as a reading genre in early modern England. Taking as its focus pre-Restoration printed drama’s most common format, the single-play quarto playbook, it interrogates what the form and content of these playbooks can tell us about who their earliest readers were, why they might have wanted to read contemporary commercial drama, and how they responded to the printed versions of plays that had initially been performed in the playhouses of early modern London. Focusing on professional plays printed in quarto between 1584 and 1660, the book juxtaposes the implications of material and paratextual evidence with analysis of historical traces of playreading in extant playbooks and manuscript commonplace books. In doing so, it presents more detailed and nuanced conclusions than have previously been enabled by studies focused on works by one author or on a single type of evidence.

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