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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. The Text of Shakespeare

§ 1. Reasons for reluctance of authors and companies to publish

THE TEXT of Shakespeare is as uncertain as are the facts of his life. In neither case are we in possession of any real authorities. But, while there is evidence to establish the certainty of some of the incidents in his career, we cannot be sure of the accuracy of a single line in his plays. Not only are we without Shakespeare’s manuscript, but we do not even possess an authorised edition of any play, such as we have of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece. The conditions under which plays were produced in the Elizabethan age supply us with two reasons for this, at first sight, extraordinary fact. Shakespeare, like his fellow dramatists, wrote for the stage and not for publication. The playwright’s sole ambition was to see his play on the stage. Hardly any play was published by its author without some apology. Marston, in his preface to The Malcontent (1604), actually complains that he is detracting from the value of his work by publishing it; and he goes on to state that his reason for consenting to this is that, if he did not publish it, others would, thus inflicting upon him still greater injury. All rights in a play were tacitly, if not legally, surrendered to the acting company, and the author’s interest in it ceased. No more striking proof of this attitude could be desired than the fact that Shakespeare himself described Venus and Adonis as “the first heire of my invention,” at a time when he had certainly written several plays.