the Merchant of Venice, of the Heyes edition of which seventeen copies survive, comes next to Henry IV, Part II, at the wrong end of the list. We are forbidden, however, to regard the survival of so many copies as accidental by the fact that the play was not reprinted until 1619. In the same way in the case of Much Ado about Nothing, of which fifteen copies are extant, we may take the absence of any quarto reprint as confirming the suggested deduction that the First Quarto was not very successful. Possibly the fact that all these three plays were published in the same year (1600) had something to do with their apparently very moderate degree of success; but the Midsummer Night’s Dream, though it also was first printed in 1600, by which time it must have been quite an old play, was much more severely bethumbed, only eight copies surviving.
While the fact of a play being permanently popular, or the vogue of the moment, seems to have been the main cause of copies of the first edition disappearing, something must be allowed for contributory causes. A time certainly came when editions without Shakespeare’s name on their titles would stand less chance of preservation than those which bore it. Again, it is only natural that Titus Andronicus, which was first published nineteen years before the First Folio, should have been more hardly used than Othello, which came out when the First Folio was already being printed. After all, moreover, “habent sua fata libelli,” and into the mysteries of fate we must not pry too closely.
There is one explanation of the variation in the number of the copies surviving in the case of different plays which may be decisively rejected; that, namely, which would have us believe that fewer copies of any given play have come down to us because fewer were printed. It would be more reasonable to argue inversely and find in the scantiness of the remnant an indication that the edition which has left so few survivors was probably a large one. The bibliographers’ maxim that the number of copies extant is likely to vary inversely with the number printed is indeed only a generalization from the points about popularity already noted. Large editions, low prices, popularity and careless handling all go together, and where we find one, in the case of works which have in them the possibility of success, we may look out for the others. Our information about the cost of paper and print at the end of the Sixteenth Century is not sufficiently precise to justify any positive statement, but it is probable that even if only quite a small sum, say forty shillings, were spent on obtaining the text of a play, either by bribery or purchase, unless something like a thousand copies could be sold at the customary price of sixpence apiece, the temptation to a publisher to print a full-length play of Shakespeare’s would have been very slight. It is more likely, indeed, that the full maximum of 1200 copies, to which the Stationers’ Company, in the interest of compositors and good workmanship, restricted an edition, was the number printed, and even if 1200 copies were sold the publisher’s profit was probably well under ten pounds. From the sale of an edition of only five hundred copies he would have done little more than clear his expenses.
We pass from these money matters to the intrinsic value of the texts of