Medieval & Early Modern History Story

A history of the printing press

  Everything you need to know about the emergence of the printing press, and how its existence allowed Shakespeare’s words to live on

4 minute read

Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest plays in the English language, invented a slew of words and phrases used to this day, and is so revered that we even built a replica of the theatre that he wrote for on Bankside. We know all of this already, but how did his works survive from the rough-and-tumble world of Elizabeth and Jacobean theatre, through to the present day?

An ink roller running across a template of letters

An ink roller running across a template of letters. Photographer: Pete Le May

In a society where we can message our friends instantly through the digital webisphere, it’s easy to forget that the world was not always a place in which you could backup your drafts to the cloud or e-publish online. Even paper was once an expensive commodity, few people could write, and even fewer could afford to buy books. So, how did we come to love this person named Shakespeare, who had no access to any digital commodities?

Before the printing press became widespread across Europe, books were produced as manuscripts. These were hand-written books, largely produced by scribes, monks and other church officials, and were valuable possessions, made of expensive materials, and individually commissioned by a lord or noble. It was a painstaking, time-consuming process that could only be undertaken by a skilled scribe, and there could therefore be differences between individual books. Books were rare, expensive, and mostly written in Vulgate Latin, a semi-extinct language that only the elite could read.

So, when a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg began producing books with his new invention, the printing press, in the mid-15th century, books started to become more accessible and a potentially profitable commodity to produce and sell.

A woodcut showing men working on a printing press

Men working on a printing press. Artwork: Jost Amman — Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998. (p 64), Wikimedia

‘Before the printing press, there were manuscripts. Hand-written books, produced by scribes, monks and other church officials in a painstaking process’

One machine and a dozen skilled artisans could churn out hundreds of books in a given period, instead of the ‘one-monk one-book’ production model of old, and it suddenly became possible for more people to buy books and for more types of books to be commonly published and sold. Only classical literature (Greek and Latin) and religious works were really thought of as worth putting in a book in the past, but the printing press unfurled the possibility of people buying, for instance, plays written in English.

Two hands pulling a lever on the printing press

The printing press in action. Photograph: Pete Le May

And yet. The Renaissance, the period of time in which medieval ways of thinking were being challenged, Classical Greek and Roman texts from pre-Christian Europe were being re-discovered, and native languages and nationalities were becoming more influential than the Roman Catholic church, did not happen all at once: although it’s generally thought of as beginning in Florence, Italy, in the late 14th century, England only really caught up more than a hundred years later. Although Gutenberg was printing bibles from about 1450, more than a century before Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, it was only 25 years earlier, in 1539, that the Great Bible, the first legally-sanctioned English-language Bible, had been commissioned by Henry VIII, and was printed in the thousands, across many editions.

‘The printing press allowed books to become more accessible and a potentially profitable commodity to produce and sell’

A woman holding a sheet of paper over a printing press, checking for errors

Shakespeare’s Globe Tour Guide Allie Croker demonstrates how the printing press works as part of a demonstration on-site. Photographer: Pete Le May

However, Shakespeare’s writing would not be printed in the same way as a book so important as the bible was. Plays were not considered to be important works of literature, and plots were largely constructed by the actors and written out in a ‘fair copy’ for their records by the company scribes, and new plays were churned out at an incredibly fast rate to provide the companies with enough material to keep performing new shows all the time; it was a little like writing for a sitcom or a soap opera in the modern day, and once a play was performed the acting companies would only keep the scripts if they felt they might revive them again down the road, and if not might sell them off to a publishing house, who would try and make a quick profit on them.

By Shakespeare’s time, printing was more common, and book publishing was more of a commercial enterprise. But Shakespeare’s plays were not published all together in his own lifetime.

A woman putting letter pieces into a thin metal tray

A close-up look at the letter pieces. Photographer: Pete Le May

The concept of intellectual copyright did not exist in this era: publishers did not pay for the right to print Shakespeare’s ideas, they paid for the physical copy of his writings, and sometimes they bought those not from the writer directly, but from actors who had been in the plays or merely from audience members who reckoned they could remember the play. As such, there could be multiple versions of one play by one author circulating at the same time, independent of the will of the author, and so it’s difficult to know for sure which versions represent Shakespeare’s ‘original’ writing, but scholars give some the name of ‘good quarto’ or ‘bad quarto’, depending on how likely they think the text is to be accurate, and ‘quarto’, like ‘folio’, being a book format of the time. This was true of Shakespeare’s poetry as well: even in an era when printing was becoming ever more widespread, educated persons interested in the work of a good author were still circulating hand-written copies of The Rape of Lucrece, in ‘commonplace books’, a sort of Elizabethan Tumblr or Pinterest, sharing them with their friends at court and making their own personal additions.

‘There could be multiple versions of one play by one author circulating at the same time, owing to printers publishing various versions from the writer, actors, and even audience members’

It’s for these reasons that there are multiple versions of some of Shakespeare’s plays, and there are some plays we know of, because people at the time write letters mentioning them, but we don’t have a copy of the play itself. In some cases later writers and publishers re-wrote Shakespeare’s plays, or combined versions, or ‘smoothed over’ details that they thought didn’t make sense, and then published that version, as if it were the only version that mattered.

Allie Croker sets out letters in their various cases. Photographer: Pete Le May

After Shakespeare died, John Heminges and Henry Condell, fellow actors in the King’s Men, began collecting together the various published versions of Shakespeare’s plays, actors scripts, and scribal copies, and edited them together into the First Folio, published in 1623. Ben Jonson, a fellow playwright, whose own works had been published in one collection in 1616, the same year as Shakespeare’s death, wrote two elegiac poems for his sometimes-rival at the beginning of the book, but the whole project itself was perhaps an attempt to eulogize Shakespeare and make his work last forever. It’s partly these reasons that allowed his writings to become part of the fabric of English culture and language, because his works have been read and circulated endlessly and have had a life of their own, though Shakespeare himself is long dead.

Few copies of the First Folio still exist, and were numbered up to 232. Two years ago the Saint-Omer First Folio was loaned to us; this was a previously unknown copy, kept in a public library in northern France, and re-discovered in 2014, making it the 233rd copy known to exist; two more have since been found, bringing the total number up to 235, out of approximately 750 copies that are thought to originally have been printed.