Indifference to the preservation of manuscripts was not peculiar to Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists. In his English Literary Hands From Chaucer to Dryden, Anthony G. Petti concluded:
"Even literary figures preoccupied with posthumous fame did not apparently place value on preserving their holograph manuscripts after publication, much less their earlier drafts, and neither, generally speaking, did anyone else, other than close friends, for the cult of collecting literary autographs did not begin in earnest until the end of the 18th century."
Petti found English Renaissance dramatic remains to be in a particularly poor state in every respect, for though "there are references to over three thousand plays in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period,...only a handful of manuscript copies survive, and a mere fraction is extant in print."
At any rate, the manuscript of a play was the property not of the playwright but of the company that produced it; unless an unauthorized printer got hold of it first, a play could not be published without the consent of the shareholders. Oxfordians dismiss this contention, but the two surviving documents that touch on this, and the publication history of Chamberlain's Men and King's Men plays, leave little room for doubt that the companies did indeed exercise control over publication. The one contract between a playwright and an acting company that still exists is that between Richard Brome and Queen Henrietta's players. Brome, the contract stipulated,
"should not suffer any play made or to be made or composed by him for your subjects or their successors in the said company in Salisbury Court to be printed by his consent or knowledge, privity, or direction without the license from the said company or the major part of them."
The agreement of the sharers in the Whitefriars Theatre provides even more important information about a company's determination to control publication of its plays:
"no man of the said Company shall at any time hereafter put into print, or cause to be put in print, any manner of play book now in use, or that hereafter shall be sold unto them, upon the penalty and forfeiture of forty pounds...."
Here we see that even a shareholder, as Shakespeare was in the Globe company was forbidden to derive personal benefit from what was viewed as the property of the company as a whole. There is no reason to think that such contracts were confined to these two particular acting companies. All the evidence is to the contrary—especially where the Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men are concerned. In the forty-eight-year history of this company it had four principal playwrights—Shakespeare, John Fletcher, Philip Massinger, and James Shirley. Although the shareholders did put plays into print from time to time, only three plays, all by Massinger, show evidence of having been printed with the author's cooperation; all three give unmistakable evidence that they were published with the company's consent as well.
What seems even more suspicious to Oxfordians than Shakespeare's indifference to his own greatness is the complementary indifference of his contemporaries. "To make Shakspere the author," said Peter Jaszi, an Oxfordian attorney, in an authorship debate in Washington, D.C., in September of 1987, "we would have to explain away the lack of recognition, in life and at death, that he would have received as such an author, in London or in Stratford." This seems a perfectly reasonable idea in the twentieth century, and especially nowadays, when a person can be famous for being famous, and journalists and biographers will root through trash to find every scrap of paper that may hold some secret to this evanescent personality. But the Elizabethans were guilty of something more than failing to anticipate what our century would want to know about Shakespeare: there is little reason to believe they shared our exalted opinion of the Bard.
To put Shakespeare into the perspective of his age, one must recognize that stage plays were considered things of slight literary merit. In 1612 Sir Thomas Bodley, the founder of the famous Bodleian Library, at Oxford, took the library's keeper to task for cataloguing "riffraffs," a category that included plays. "Some plays," he allowed, "may be worth the keeping, but hardly one in forty." For although the playwrights of other nations were "men of great fame for wisdom and learning," such qualities were "seldom or never seen among us." Indeed, he feared the scandal "when it shall be given out that we stuff [the library] full of baggage books." None of Shakespeare's plays was among the one in forty.
For all the honors that were soon to be conferred on Ben Jonson, when his 1616 folio, The Works of Benjamin Jonson, appeared, a wag posed the famous question, "Pray tell me, Ben, where doth the mystery lurk,/What others call a play you call a work."
Though John Dryden was an admirer of Shakespeare's, he confessed that Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher "had with the advantage of Shakespeare's wit, which was their precedent, great natural gifts, improv'd by study," and that for this reason "their Plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the Stage; two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespeare's or Jonson's." Whether or not Dryden's estimate is reliable, the Restoration audiences of Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher saw the plays as they had been written. But Shakespeare offended this refined age, violating its idea of dramatic form and good taste. Not many of his plays escaped thorough adaptation. The Macbeth that Restoration audiences saw owed more to Sir William Davenant than to Shakespeare; Nahum Tate's revision of King Lear is notorious. Antony and Cleopatra was newly made by Dryden to become All for Love. And so on.