On this day in 1598, William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice is entered on the Stationers’ Register. By decree of Queen Elizabeth, the Stationers’ Register licensed printed works, giving the Crown tight control over all published material. Although its entry on the register licensed the printing of The Merchant of Venice, its first version would not be published for another two years.
The publication of Shakespeare’s plays was a haphazard matter. Playwrights at the time were not interested in publication: They sold their plays to theater companies, which tried to prevent rivals from literally stealing the show. The writer produced only one complete written script for a play, and the players received only their own lines and cues, not the entire play. Sometimes, however, disgruntled actors would prepare their own version of the play from notes cribbed during performances. Among other plays, there are pirated versions, or “bad quartos,” for Henry VI and Hamlet. Scholars believe, however, that the first printing, in 1600, of The Merchant of Venice came from a clean manuscript of the complete play.
During his lifetime, no authorized versions of Shakespeare’s plays were printed. However, his sonnets were published in 1609, seven years before his death.