old blunder was by his time part of the Eighteenth Century Shakespearian creed. Thus he could not get away from it, but says sweepingly of the Quartos, in the very sentence in which he is confessing their merits, “undoubtedly they were all surreptitious, that is stolen from the playhouse, and printed without the consent of the author or the proprietors.”
Can Malone, or anyone else who has upheld this extraordinary theory, ever have thought out what it involved? If all the plays of Shakespeare published before 1623 were “stolen from the playhouse and printed without the consent of the author or the proprietors,” are we to suppose that his works were the sole objects of attack, or were the couple of dozen other plays acted by his company which found their way into print while he was still in London, i.e., between 1594 and 1608, also pirated? And if all or most of the quartos of plays acted by Shakespeare’s company were pirated, what about the rest, produced at other theatres? If the theory in its full implications is to be maintained there must, in some years, have been a piracy once a fortnight. If it be said that in the case of Shakespeare’s plays we have a positive statement, which does not apply to the others, about which we may therefore adopt a hopeful agnosticism, we must recur to our point that the positive statement as to Shakespeare’s plays need apply to no more than two of them. But let us accept the position, absurd as it is, that only the plays performed by Shakespeare’s company, and among these only those in which he himself had a hand were singled out for attack. This would still oblige us to believe that in the thirteen years 1597 to 1609 there were some fourteen successive piracies. Now to pirate a single play of some two thousand five hundred or three thousand lines would be no easy matter, unless, indeed, as Mr. Fleay once suggested in the case of Romeo and Juliet, a prompter were kind enough to “throw aside” a superfluous copy, where it could be picked up by a dishonest servant. Piracy from the wastepaper basket, piracy by stenography, piracy by the treachery of a “hired man,”—we can imagine all these feats to have been performed once; but unless the players were pleased to have their plays stolen, surely some steps must have been taken to prevent the recurrence of these thefts, and the steps cannot have been so ineffective as to allow nearly all Shakespeare’s early plays and several of his later ones to be appropriated. Many of these quarto editions appeared some years after the first production of the play. Was it impossible to keep both the prompt-copy and the actors’ parts securely locked up, even when a play was not being performed? In 1597 and again in 1600 several plays by Shakespeare were published one after the other. Were these outbursts of piracy the result of a burglary at the theatre? The topical character of Elizabethan plays is often emphasized, even over-emphasized; is it not remarkable that we hear little or
- “Q2 is, according to this theory, a revised version made on a complete copy of an early version of the play, while Q1 is printed from the prompter’s copy of the same early version. When the revision took place this copy would be thrown aside as worthless; and any dishonest employé of the theatre could sell it to an equally dishonest publisher, who would publish it as the play now acted.” (A Chronicle History of the Life and Work of William Shakespeare. By F. G. Fleay, 1886, p. 193.) If piracies were frequent, is carelessness of the kind here supposed easily conceivable?