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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

X. The Elizabethan Theatre

§ 25. The Author and his Company

Another fact to be noticed is the intimate connection between author and company. It was not only actor-authors, like Shakespeare and Nathan Field, who attached themselves to one company and wrote their plays for it during life or a term of years. The tradition that Hamlet was made “fat” because Burbage was fat, and the still less trustworthy tradition that Iago was written for a comedian, with opportunities introduced into the part for making the audience laugh, do not go so far to prove the effect of this practice on shakespeare’s work as does the consideration that any sensible playwright writing for a certain company will take care that the parts are adapted to its members. Authors often worked very fast, plays being written sometimes in the short space of a fortnight; and they looked for very little reward. The Admiral’s company seems to have ordered and produced more new plays than the Chamberlain’s and King’s company,whose plays, possibly, could bear more frequent repetition; and they only paid sums varying from £5 to £8 for a play until 1602, though as much as £25 seems to have been obtainable later in the period under notice. The author seems to have received a fee for altering his play for production at court; but, though the company recieved a regular fee of £6. 13s. 4d., with a present of £3. 6s. 8d. for each play performed at court in London, and double those sums when the performance entailed a journey to Hampton court or Windsor, the author cannot be proved to have had a share of this reward. He was present, no doubt, when the company assembled at an inn to read and consider his new play over refreshments paid for by the company, and he had a right to free admission to the playhouse—a privilege which Ben Jonson used to abuse by sitting in the gallery and making wry faces at the actors’ delivery of his lines. The author recieved a fee for altering his play for a revival, 5s. for a prologue and epilogue and, sometimes, a bonus at the first performance; and there is good evidence that, in certain cases, if not regularly, the author had a “benefit,” as later times would have phrased it, on the second or third day of performance. If his play was published, he could gain 40s. by dedicating it to a patron.

The play was bought by the company, though there are scattered cases in which individual persons exercised the rights of ownership; the manuscripts formed part of the stock owned in shares by the company, who could sell the play, if they wished, to another company, but, naturally, disliked printing it, lest a rival company should produce it unlawfully. For the same reason, the author was not encouraged to print his play; the company purchased the copyright, and it was considered sharp practice for the author to sell it also to a bookseller. Many plays crept into print in a mangled form through some surreptitious sale by a member of the company, or through stenographers, who attended the playhouse to take down what they could of a successful play.