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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.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 27. Authors and their troubles

It is unnecessary to make a more than passing reference here to another profession, which in the Elizabethan age already existed, although it might be said to have only recently come into existence. The general conditions which affected the publication of books, and, with it, the exercise of the profession of author, have been discussed in a previous volume and more will be said in a later chapter as to the special conditions of the writing of plays. The number of playwrights who, at the same time, were stage actors, probably, was by no means so large as has sometimes been assumed; Miss Sheavyn reckons that, to our knowledge, not more than nine combined the “equality” of actor with authorship. Thus, there was no reason why “gentlemen and scholars” should extend to dramatic or other authors as such the scorn which, at different times, they were wont to manifest for the profession of the actor, despised by them as, traditionally, a menial or envied as the well paid and gorgeously apparelled favourite of the public. Yet the professional author—the man, that is, who sought to live by his pen, or, at least, to make it contribute appreciably to his means of earning a livelihood, had no easy life of it in the Elizabethan age. Patrons were rare who gave sums of money—especially large sums such as that which Southampton is held to have bestowed on Shakespeare—or provided hospitality on a large scale, such as Jonson enjoyed from lord d’Aubigny; though there may have been other cases of quasi-hereditary support, such as that granted by the Herberts to Massinger, or of spontaneous generosity like that extended to Greene by a successful player. Fewer still were those to whom, as to Munday and Jonson, the goodwill of city or crown secured an official salary by the side of their literary earnings. The universities reserved none of their emoluments for the “university wits,” whose flattering dedications were more profitably addressed to the goodwill of individual magnates. The laborious gains of proof correcting and the like hardly came into account, as they had done in the earlier days of the renascence, when such accomplishments were still confined to a small number of scholars. It was more tempting to take to the writing of pamphlets, even if these often really only hovered on the outskirts of literature, if not to descend into other depths and enter upon one or more of the harassing employments of the news factor, the prophetic almanac maker, the ballad and jig writer, or the craftsman who composed lascivious verse to suit the taste of his public.

It has been shown above that, though the charter of the Stationers’ company was confirmed in the first year of Elizabeth’s reign, and the licensing and censorship of books was instituted by the injunctions issued in that year, the actual operation of this censorship did not begin till near the middle of the last decade but one of the sixteenth century—an epoch of intense public anxiety. In 1586, when the agitation largely due to Jesuit missions and their actual or supposed results was at its height and the so-called “discovery” of the Babyngton conspiracy was calling forth wild alarm, the Star chamber issued the decree which confined printing, with the exception of the two universities, to the liberties of the city of London, and subjected all books and pamphlets before publication to the licence of the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London. Those licensing regulations were enforced by the court of High Commission (though the actual process of licensing, in part, was handed over to particular expert authorities—as, in the case of plays, to the master of the revels), and the activity of the court was easily set in motion wherever the interests or susceptibilities of church or state seemed to call for its interference. The drama, of course, most frequently and most readily laid itself open to official suspicion. Thus, on the single occasion of the imminence of trouble on the part of Essex and his supporters, the authors of at least two plays, Philotas and Sejanus, were in some danger, and the performance of a third (Richard II) led to further official enquiry. As in the days of the early Roman empire, a class of informers rose into being, called, in Elizabethan parlance, “moralisers” or “state decipherers,” whose business it was to discover and denounce passages, situations and even single words which seemed to betray a dangerous meaning. The spirit of Jacobean government did not fail to carry further a system congenial to its mode of working. Such, in this age, were a few among the troubles of authors—troubles in which dramatists had more than their share.