The Cultural Uses of Type in Early Modern England

by Zachary Lesser
, Assistant Professor of English


In early modern England, as today, publishers used all the techniques at their disposal to enhance the appeal of their books to potential buyers. Even a seemingly mundane element like typography could carry cultural meaning, as in the case of "continuous printing," a technique of setting type in early modern playbooks, in which verse lines broken between two speakers are set on one line to create a full metrical unit.

In an era when plays were widely considered subliterary—Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian library, ordered his head librarian not to purchase them—continuous printing functioned, as one of many strategies of material presentation, to create cultural distinctions among playbooks. Continuous printing values the literary and poetic in the playwright’s lines, their meter and form, over the theatrical necessity of clearly identifying the speaker of those lines, helping to turn a stage play into a printed poem. A technique that originated in university, closet, and classical drama, continuous printing may have come to seem "literary," elevating certain plays above "vulgar" dramatic spectacle and establishing certain playwrights as "authors" in the classical tradition.

A. Alexander Neville, trans., Oedipus, from Seneca, His Tenne Tragedies. London: Thomas Marsh, 1581.

The practice of continuous printing began with translations from classical drama like Alexander Neville’s translation of Oedipus, from the 1581 collection of Seneca’s tragedies. Towards the bottom of the left-hand page, the verse line (a fourteener) divides between the end of Manto’s speech ("The beast before the Aulter stands") and the beginning of Tyresias’s ("To Gods a prayer make"). The printer inserts the speech prefix "TY." immediately following the end of Manto’s speech, and continues the line until the end of the fourteener.

B. William Shakespeare, The historie of Henry the Fourth: with the battell at Shrewsbury …. London: John Norton, to be sold by Hugh Perry, 1639.

The more usual, "noncontinuous" method of setting type simply begins a new line where the new speaker begins, as in the ninth quarto of Shakespeare’s most popular printed play, Henry IV, Part One. Halfway down the right-hand page, Hotspur’s "And bid it passe?" and Vernon’s "All furnisht? all in Armes?" form one complete line of blank verse (iambic pentameter), but the verse is divided between two lines of type.

C. George Chapman, The reuenge of Bussy D’Ambois. London: Thomas Snodham, to be sold by John Helme, 1613.

Title-pages of plays with continuous printing are far more likely than the average printed play to contain Latin, to trumpet the social status of the author, or to highlight performance at one of the "private" (indoor) theaters, seen as more elite than the "public" (outdoor) theaters. The title page of George Chapman’s The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois emphasizes its author’s gentle status, sets off his name with horizontal rules, and indicates its performance "at the private Play-house in the White-Fryers."

D. Ben Jonson, The New Inne. Or, The light heart. London: Thomas Harper for Thomas Alchorne, 1631.

Ben Jonson did more than any dramatist in the period to establish plays as works of literature and playwrights as authors, even including his stage plays in his elaborately classicized collection of Workes (1616). Not surprisingly, of all playwrights, Jonson’s plays use continuous printing most consistently and prominently. This quarto edition of The New Inne employs the technique to underline the difference between vulgar "play" and "legitimate Poëme" that he articulated in his dedication to Catiline.

E. Francis Beaumont, The knight of the burning pestle. London: Nicholas Okes for I. S., 1635.


John Webster, The white deuil, or, The tragedy of Paolo Giordano Vrsini … with the life, and death, of Vittoria Corombona. London: John Norton for Hugh Perry, 1631.

Plays with continuous printing often assert their elevation above the normal stage-play in prefatory material as well. The publisher’s dedication to Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613; here in its second edition) claims that the original audience rejected the play "for want of judgement." The play is not for "any vulgar braine" but only for an "understanding" audience. As can be seen here, the play is printed continuously. Similarly, John Webster’s preface to The White Devil (1612; here in its second edition) complains that the play lacked an "understanding Auditory" in the theater. Not coincidentally, in his encomiastic list of playwrights (on the left-hand page displayed here), Webster lauds Chapman for his "heightned stile" and Jonson for his "understanding workes." Shakespeare appears in the last group, with Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood, praised (perhaps faintly) for his "copious industrie." No early edition of Shakespeare’s plays is printed continuously.

F. William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, ed. H.J. Oliver. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

Over time, Shakespeare has taken on many of the characteristics earlier associated with the authors of continuously printed plays, seen as a poet (the Poet) more than a playwright. The critic Charles Lamb argued in 1811 that the "excellence" of Shakespeare’s plays makes them "less calculated for performance on a stage, than those of almost any other dramatist whatever." In 1900, James Joyce similarly claimed that Shakespeare’s work was "far from mere drama, it was literature in dialogue," a distinction that stresses the literary over the dialogic just as continuous printing does. This tradition has found its way back into typography. Most modern editions of Shakespeare, like the Oxford The Taming of the Shrew displayed here, use a variation of continuous printing to highlight the author’s poetic art. While the Oxford edition distinguishes between speakers by beginning a new line of type, it also emphasizes the metrical unity of the shared line by indenting its second portion. Thus modern editors, like early modern publishers, rely on continuous printing to stress the "poetic" and "literary" aspects of the drama; and now Shakespeare, too, embodies the dramatist as Poet and Author.

Back to Exhibit Table of Contents |  Forward to [Next] Case