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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Quarto Play: The First Edition of The Old Law, or A New Way to Please You

The Renaissance Center contains a large collection of items related to the commercial theater of sixteenth and seventeenth century London.  The book displayed here, for instance, is the first edition of The Old Law, or A New Way to Please You, a tragicomedy attributed to Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, and Philip Massinger on the book's title page. Though this quarto was initially published “for Edward Archer, at the signe of the Adam and Eve, in Little Britaine, 1656,” textual scholars have dated the play’s composition back about four decades before this publication. The exact nature of Massinger’s involvement has been disputed, and the play may have been written by Middleton and Rowley between 1614-18, and only later revised by Massinger for a different performance by the King’s Men.

Aside from the historical and literary significance of the play itself, this volume is famous for  containing "An exact and perfect catalogue of all the plaies that were ever printed,” a listing thought to be one of the earliest attempts to catalog the works of the English Renaissance theater (unfortunately, this catalog is missing from our copy, though it has been supplied in facsimile).  Another notable detail about this publication is how carelessly it was printed. The copy errors on page 64, for example, are easy to spot. 

Plays were important enough to catalog, it seems, but the carelessness of this edition may also point to the fact that the cultural space inhabited by commercial theater was still in flux during the time of this volume’s publication.  


The post following this will continue to showcase our collection of works related to London’s commercial theater. Alex Bloom, an intern at the Center and a student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, will discuss a selection of Ben Jonson’s folios, detailing how these publications relate and contribute to the early modern construction of authorship. 

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