Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thorpe, Thomas (1570?-1635?)

THORPE, THOMAS (1570?–1635?), publisher of Shakespeare's ‘Sonnets,’ born about 1570, was son of Thomas Thorpe, an innkeeper of Barnet, Middlesex (Arber, Reg. of Stationers' Company, ii. 124). At midsummer 1584 he was apprenticed for nine years to a printer and stationer of London, Richard Watkins (ib. p. 713), and in 1594 he took up the freedom of the Stationers' Company. A younger brother, Richard, was apprenticed to another stationer, Martin Ensor, for seven years from 24 Aug. 1596, but did not take up his freedom (ib. ii. 123). Thomas found obscure employment as a stationer's assistant, but in 1600 he became the owner of the unpublished manuscript of Christopher Marlowe's translation of the ‘First Book of Lucan.’ Through the good offices of a friend in the trade, Edward Blount [q. v.], he contrived to publish it. His name did not figure on the title-page, but as owner of the ‘copy’ he signed the dedication, which he jestingly addressed to his friend Blount. He wrote with good-humoured sarcasm of the parsimony of the ordinary literary patron. In 1603 Thorpe again engaged in a publishing speculation, and his name figured on a title-page for the first time. The book was an insignificant pamphlet on current events. Another work of a like kind bore his name later in the year, and between that date and 1624 twenty-eight books were issued at irregular intervals with the announcement that he took part in the process of publication. The title-pages of nearly all Thorpe's books declared that the volumes were printed for him by one stationer, and were sold for him by another stationer, whose address was supplied. It was only in three of the publications on the title-pages of which Thorpe's name figured—viz. R. West's ‘Wits A. B. C.,’ Chapman's ‘Byron,’ and Ben Jonson's ‘Masques of Blackness and Beauty,’ all dated in 1608—that he announced, in accordance with the custom of well-established publishers, that he was himself in the occupation of a shop, i.e. ‘The Tiger's Head, in St. Paul's Churchyard,’ at which the books could be purchased. During the other years of his publishing career he pursued his calling homelessly—without business plant or premises of his own, and depending on better equipped colleagues in the trade to sell as well as to print the volumes in which he had an interest. Many of his colleagues began publishing operations in this manner, but none except Thorpe are known to have followed it throughout their careers.

Thorpe's energies seem, in fact, to have been mainly confined, as in his initial venture of Marlowe's ‘Lucan,’ to the predatory work of procuring, no matter how, unpublished and neglected ‘copy.’ In the absence, in the early part of the seventeenth century, of any legal recognition of an author's right to control the publication of his work, the actual holder of a manuscript was its lawful and responsible owner, no matter by what means it had fallen into his hands. Thorpe was fortunate enough to obtain between 1605 and 1611 at least nine manuscript volumes of literary interest, viz. three plays by Chapman, four works of Ben Jonson (including ‘Sejanus,’ 1605), Coryat's ‘Odcombian Banquet,’ and Shakespeare's ‘Sonnets’ (1609). The last—the most interesting of all—which had many years earlier circulated in manuscript among Shakespeare's ‘private friends,’ was entered by Thorpe on the ‘Stationers' Registers’ on 20 May 1609. There, as on the published title-page, he styled his treasure-trove ‘Shakespeares Sonnets’—a tradesmanlike collocation of words which is one of the many proofs that the author was in no way associated with Thorpe's project. The volume was printed for Thorpe by George Eld, and some copies of the impression bore the name of William Aspley as Thorpe's bookselling agent, while others bore the name of John Wright. In conformity with the accepted practice, Thorpe, as owner of the ‘copy,’ supplied the dedication. He signed it with his initials ‘T. T.,’ styling himself, with characteristic bombast, ‘the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth’ [i.e. the hopeful promoter of the speculation]. As in the case of Marlowe's ‘Lucan,’ he selected for patron of the volume a friend in the trade, whom he denominated ‘Mr. W. H.’ He fantastically described ‘Mr. W. H.’ as ‘the only begetter’—i.e. procurer of the sonnets—a description which implies that Thorpe owed his acquisition of the manuscript to the good offices of ‘Mr. W. H.’ An obscure stationer, William Hall, was at this period filling, like Thorpe, the irresponsible rôle of procurer of manuscripts. In 1606 Hall had procured for publication a neglected manuscript poem, ‘A Foure-fold Meditation,’ by the jesuit, Robert Southwell [q. v.], and had supplied, as owner of the ‘copy,’ a dedicatory epistle under his initials ‘W. H.’ There is little doubt that Thorpe was acquainted with Hall. Southwell's poem was printed for Hall by George Eld, the printer of Shakespeare's ‘Sonnets,’ and of many others of Thorpe's publications. Hall himself became a master-printer in a small way in 1609, and he described himself as ‘W. H.’ on the title-page of at least one of his books (‘Trial of John Selman,’ 1612). No other person who was likely to be in Thorpe's circle of acquaintance was known to designate himself by the same initials. Hall is therefore in all probability the ‘Mr. W. H.’ of Shakespeare's ‘Sonnets.’

In 1610 Thorpe acquired some unpublished manuscripts of an insignificant author, John Healey [q. v.], who had migrated to Virginia and had apparently died there. Another publisher had issued in 1609 a translation by Healey of Bishop Hall's ‘Discoverie of a New World,’ and Healey had dedicated that work to William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke [q. v.] When Thorpe published the manuscripts by Healey in his hands, he prefixed to them dedicatory epistles signed by his own initials, and, inaugurating a new practice in his choice of patrons, addressed them to men of eminence who had acted as patrons of Healey's earlier ventures. Thorpe chose Lord Pembroke as patron of Healey's translation of St. Augustine's ‘City of God’ in 1610, and penned a very obsequious address to the earl. To another of Healey's patrons, John Florio [q. v.], Thorpe dedicated Healey's translation of ‘Epictetus’ (1610), and when Thorpe brought out a second edition of that work in 1616, he addressed himself again to Lord Pembroke. These three dedicatory epistles are the longest literary compositions by Thorpe that are extant; they are fantastic and bombastic in style to the bounds of incoherence, and the two addresses to Lord Pembroke are extravagantly subservient in tone. In 1624 Thorpe's name appeared in print in connection with a book for the last time. In that year there was issued a new edition of Chapman's ‘Byron,’ which Thorpe had first published in 1608. Thorpe, whose surreptitious production of Shakespeare's ‘Sonnets’ has long perplexed Shakespeare's biographers and has given him his sole title to fame, seems to have been granted an almsroom in the hospital of Ewelme on 3 Dec. 1635 (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1635, p. 527).

[Arber's Stationers' Registers; Thorpe's publications in Bodleian and British Museum libraries; Athenæum, 1 Nov. 1873, by Mr. Charles Edmonds; Southwell's Foure-fold Meditation, edited by Mr. Charles Edmonds, 1895, preface; Life of Shakespeare, 1898, by the present writer; art. Shakespeare, William; introduction to the Oxford University Press Facsimile of Shakespeare's Sonnets, by the present writer, Oxford, 1905; information kindly supplied by Samuel Butler, esq.]

S. L.