What About The Title Pages? (They Also Prove Shakespeare Adapted The Plays!)

When Shakespeare died in 1616, the majority of his plays still remained unpublished –and many of the plays that had been published while he was alive and with his name on the title pages are today considered either apocryphal (e.g., Sir John Oldcastle, The London Prodigal, A Yorkshire Tragedy) or a “bad quarto” (i.e. a weaker, briefer, staged adaptation of the more authentic, literary version. ) This will be examined in greater detail in a later post.

Moreover, the first Shakespearean plays that were published while Shakespeare was alive–including Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, part 2, Henry VI, part 3, Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV, part 1— carried no author-name on the title pages. And when Shakespeare’s name or initials did start appearing on the plays, the designation in four of the first five examples did not say “written by,” but “corrected” or “augmented by.”

In the 16th and 17th centuries, title page descriptions such as corrected, amended, augmented, or enlarged were both common and informative. Typically, when it was the original author who made corrections or additions to his own, prior works, printers liked to advertise that fact: clarifying that these changes were made “by the author himself.” Consider as an example the 1595 text, “The Castle of Health,” which was “corrected, and in some places augmented by the first author thereof, Sir Thomas Elyot Knight.” The designation of a work as having been corrected or augmented “by the author” — appears on hundreds of title pages on Early English Books Online.

In contrast, when the work did not claim that it had been “corrected” or “amended” “by the author” this typically implied the work had been corrected by someone else. In Shakespeare’s time, anyone could amend anyone else’s work and then sell it to printers.  And this was quite a common practice.  As an illustration, later editions of the French-English textbook, “The French Schoolemaister,” which was originally written by Claudius Hollyband, was later published by Richard Field “as now newly corrected and amended by P. Erondelle.”  Erondelle was not the original writer but the corrector and augmenter. In 1581, “St. Augustine’s Manual,” obviously supposed to contain the writings of St. Augustine, was published as “Corrected, translated, and adorned, by Thomas Rogers.”  Rogers was not the original writer, but the corrector. The convoluted title-page of The history of four-footed beasts and serpents…, originally published in 1607, provides a nice example of a variety of title-page practices of the era.  It states:

“Collected out of the writings of Conradus Gesner and other authors, by Edward Topsel. Whereunto is now added, The theater of insects…: by T. Muffet, Dr. of Physick. The whole revised, corrected, and enlarged with the addition of two useful physical tables, by J.R. M.D.”[1]

Often, in this era of frequent anonymity, the title-pages never stated who was the original author and/or never clarified who had “corrected” or “amended” or “enlarged” the work.  But in those situations, one could never just assume that the author and the amender were one and the same.  Indeed, when it was the original author who had corrected his works, printers made sure to state this fact.

The same practice was also quite common for plays, especially since in this medium in particular, it was typical practice for one author to revise the work of another.  As Neil Carson, the editor of the theatrical records of Philip Henslowe, wrote (emphasis added): “By far the majority of payments for revisions recorded in Henslowe’s diary are to single authors for changes in other men’s work.  In some cases we do not know the names of the original authors…[2]

After the first two quarto versions of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy were published in 1594 and 1599, a 1602 version was described as:

Newly corrected, amended, and enlarged with new additions of the Painters part, and others, as it hath of late been divers times acted. 

Thomas Kyd’s, The Spanish Tragedy (1602)

The printing of this amended play occurred just one year after Philip Henslowe had paid Ben Jonson for additions to this play, though some scholars question whether the published additions are by Jonson or some other writer(s).  Again, the title page does not say who added “the Painter’s part,” but it is unlikely the amender was the original author, Kyd, who had died eight years earlier. 

Once we understand these typical printing practices, the Shakespeare title-pages become even clearer.  Here now are four of the first five plays attributed to William Shakespeare by name or initials on the title page:

  • Locrine Q1 (1595 — likely first written by Robert Greene): “Newly set foorth, overseene, and corrected. By W.S.”
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost Q1 (1598): “Newly corrected and augmented By W. Shakespeare.”
  • Henry IV, part 1, Q2 (1599): “Newly corrected by W. Shake-speare.” 
  • Richard III Q3 (1602  — “bad quarto”) “Newly augmented, by William Shake-speare.”[iv]

The title pages of these plays are in fact precisely correct:  Just as Ben Jonson or some other writer had “corrected” and “amended” Thomas Kyd’s 1580’s play The Spanish Tragedy in 1602, William Shakespeare “corrected” and “augmented” Locrine, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Henry IV, part 1, and Richard III.  And this was Shakespeare’s main responsibility; he was the gatherer, overseer, adapter, and producer of the plays performed by his theater companies.

Scholars no longer consider Locrine an authentically “Shakespearean” play, and some (like the brilliant Darren Freebury-Jones) have provided significant evidence that its original author was Robert Greene.[5] Still, it is interesting how similar all these title pages are –including Locrine’s. All of them begin with “Newly;” three of the four include corrected; and two of the four have augmented. Indeed, Locrine‘s title page not only matches the others, the play remained part of the official Shakespeare canon for many decades, appearing in both the second and third Folios of 1664 and 1685.

What is more, as noted earlier, these are not the only supposedly apocryphal works attributed to Shakespeare by title-page designation while he was alive. As shown here, the title pages of The London Prodigal and Yorkshire Tragedy were also attributed to Shakespeare.

Today, most scholars accept that Thomas Middleton was the author of Yorkshire Tragedy and have still not resolved who originally wrote The London Prodigal, though all agree it was not by the same person who wrote Hamlet. So was there a wide-ranging conspiracy involving various printers trying to frame Shakespeare for other people’s plays? Of course not. Shakespeare still likely paid for and adapted these works for the stage, perhaps cutting out or conflating characters, trimming passages, maybe moving scenes around. The reason these plays seem so unShakespearean — so much so that were removed from the official canon long after Shakespeare died — is that they were not originally written by Thomas North. Still, Shakespeare’s hand in it was light enough that scholars can still detect that Greene originally wrote Locrine while Middleton wrote A Yorkshire Tragedy.

Richmond Crinkley made a similar point in Shakespeare Quarterly

There is certainly external evidence, in that Shakespeare’s initials were applied to a number of works printed during the time he flourished – works which he did not disown and to which indeed he could well have done what he was initially said to have done, “overseen.”  Locrine appeared in 1595 as “Newly set foorth, overseene and corrected by W.S.”  The traditional theory that the printer was trying to capitalize on Shakespeare’s name is surely implausible, since Shakespeare’s name was not by then widely printed.  It is more likely that Shakespeare as a producer and procurer of plays did exactly what the title page said he did.  It is no discredit to him that he did so, it being then something of a producer’s prerogative.

Richmond Crinkley, “New Perspectives on The Authorship Question,” Shakespeare Quarterly (1985) [5]

Indeed, if Shakespeare had staged Greene’s Locrine by 1592, the attack on Shakespeare in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit as an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” makes even more sense.

Finally, these title pages also confirm that Shakespeare was not really trying to fool anyone and show how the Shakespeare-designations slowly evolved over time.  At first, his adaptations of Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, part 2, Henry VI, part 3, Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV, part 1 were all published anonymously.  Then, as the popularity of this powerful play-producer continued to grow, his name started appearing on the title pages  — but not as the original author, just as the one who “newly corrected” or “newly augmented” or “overseene” the works.  There were no conspiracies.  That is what Shakespeare actually did.  Then, starting at about the turn of the century, when Shakespeare was peaking in terms of fame and power, this detail that he was the augmenter would be dropped.  He was designated as the author of the adaptations (see title pages below):

[1] Edward, Topsell, The history of four-footed beasts and serpents… (London: E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge, 1658).

[3] Neil Carson, A Companion to Henslowe’s Diary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 77.

[4] RIII Q1 originally had no name on the title-page, then in 1598 RIII Q2 was depicted as “by William Shake-speare.” In 1602, the title page of RIII Q3 was changed to “Newly augmented, by William Shake-speare,” even though it was simply a reprint of RIII Q2.

[5] Darren Freebury-Jones, “Determining Robert Greene’s Dramatic Canon,” Style, 54.4 (2020), 377-398.

[5] Richmond Crinkley, “New Perspectives on The Authorship Question,” Shakespeare Quarterly 36.4 (1985): 515-522.

4 thoughts on “What About The Title Pages? (They Also Prove Shakespeare Adapted The Plays!)

  1. I’m convinced! I’m a Northite, Northumbrian, or whatever the designation is. That North was the source explains how it is possible that a 29yr old son of a glove maker could produce 1-2 plays a year for 28 years, on subjects he knew nothing about personally. My only questions now are on the mechanics of it all- how Shakespeare had access to North’s unpublished works, how Shakespeare’s colleagues had possession of his manuscripts after his death (and why these weren’t declared in his will), and how is it that (as Diana Price brilliantly shows), we have zero indication/proof that Shakespeare was ever a writer?

    1. Paul! Sorry for the delayed response! Yes, it’s just “Northern.” In future posts we will see that, in the early 1590s, Shakespeare began hiring many people to help him produce the dozens of plays that his theater company put on every year. And this includes Sir Thomas North, who already had written dozens of plays for Leicester’s Men. Regarding Diana Price: I think the evidence she presents showed that Shakespeare was not much of a scholar, kept no books, and was often derided as uneducated and a plagiarist. This fits with all the title-page attributions and contemporaneous comments about him.

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