Shakespeare, it would seem, got much of his material from books published by Richard Field, whose print shop was located in the Liberty of Blackfriars. We don’t know exactly where, but a good guess is that it was somewhere along the alley known later as Printing House Lane, shown on maps as connecting Water Lane with St. Andrew’s Hill, passing just south of the building containing both the first and second Blackfriars theaters. It’s still not clear when what was probably originally a path acquired lane status and when it acquired its name, but it’s more likely than not that it was Field’s printshop that began a printing tradition on or near that site that continued for centuries. The London Times began its long career on Printing House Lane in 1785.
Field’s printshop originally belonged to Thomas Vautrollier, a Huguenot from France who arrived in London at about the same time as Oxford. Vautrollier began as an agent for Christopher Plantin, the high-end printer-publisher of Antwerp, so Thomas must have been assisted by some well-set patron/s who desired, and could afford, quality books in Latin and English. One such would have been Ld Burghley, Oxford’s guardian and the Queen’s Principal Secretary, another his friend and fellow promoter of English translations, Matthew Parker, Archibishop of Canterbury.
Interested in seeing quality copies of important texts published in London, and willing to help the beleagered French Protestants escape their persecutors, it would have been patrons like these who made it possible in 1568 for Vautrollier to set up his own printshop and to get the valuable government patents that brought him success. Vautrollier also published music for famed composers William Byrd and Sir Thomas Tallis, kept the works of Martin Luther in print, and got into trouble with the Privy Council in 1583 for publishing the science of “atheist” Giordano Bruno (ODNB).
In 1579, Richard Field, son of Henry Field, a tanner in business with John Shakspere in Stratford-on-Avon, was apprenticed to George Bishop, a prominent member of the Stationers Guild, who put the 18-year-old Field to work with Vautrollier (ODNB). (in 1577, George Bishop had collaborated on the publication of some of William Harrison’s Description of England as Hollinshed’s Chronicles. (Some sections of Harrison’s text were written by Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith [Dewar Anglorum]).
Following Vautrollier’s death in 1587, Field married his daughter (or widow) thereby acquiring the printshop and its valuable patents. The first publication to bear his name suggests a connection to Burghley when, in 1588, Field hired his wife to print The Copie of a Letter Sent out of England to Don Bernardin Mendoza. This bit of post-Armada anti-Spanish propaganda was ostensibly written by a recently-executed priest, although manuscripts that survive in Burghley’s hand strongly suggest his authorship (Kathman Vautrollier ODNB). This goes far to establish connections between Oxford (Burghley’s ward and son-in-law), Field and the publication of controversial material as the work of someone other than the individual who actually wrote it.
Field began his printing career within a few doors of the first Blackfriars theater during its period of rising popularity. His apprenticeship with Vautrollier began during Oxford’s peak of Court favor, when the earl was producing plays for the children to perform at the little theater at Blackfriars. From 1581 to May 1583 Oxford may have been less frequently in the precinct, due to his banishment from Court and threats of bodily harm from Ann Vavasor’s relatives, but with his return to the West End in 1583, he would have found Field in charge of the print shop while Vautrollier was away in Scotland on business. That Oxford again became involved with the theater at Blackfriars seems clear from the titles of the plays performed by the Children at Court at this time, and from his effort to save the theater/school in 1584 by putting his name, however briefly, on the lease. Although historians hold that the school was closed, as I’ve argued elsewhere, from the lack of any evidence of any other theater near or within Westminster, it’s likely it was allowed to continue until Hunsdon’s leases ran out in 1590-91.
Field and Shakespeare
Field is indelibly connected with Shakespeare by the fact that it was his shop that published several of Shakespeare’s most seminal sources. In 1579, the year Field joined Vautrollier and that Oxford hit his peak at Court, their shop published North’s translation of Plutarch, the primary source for Shakespeare’s Greek and Roman history plays. In 1582, while Vautrollier was away in Scotland, Field published Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Latin, the primary source for so many of Shakespeare’s comedies and dramas. In 1587 he published the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, a major source for Shakespeare’s English history plays and the source as well of much scholarly perplexity due to the crossovers, whole chunks of language, that Shakespeare (apparently) swiped from this edition.
Field is also connected with moves made by Elizabethan courtier poets to break through the cultural barriers that were keeping them from publishing. In 1591 he printed Sir John Harington Jr’s translation of Orlando Furioso (1591) and in 1596 Harington’s Metamorphosis of Ajax, which, though first published under pseudonyms. In 1592 he printed the second edition of Robert Greene/Oxford’s Pandosto, source of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale; in 1593 he printed his Venus and Adonis and in 1594, his Rape of Lucrece. In 1595 he printed the second edition of North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, the source for Shakespeare’s Roman plays. In 1596 he printed the first full edition of Spenser/Bacon’s Faerie Queene. In 1598 he printed the second edition of Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, published by his sister Mary under her brother’s real name.
The King’s Printers
By 1613, when Field had moved his printing operation to Wood Street, it seems likely that his former shop and its royal patents continued under other management, most likely the team King James dubbed the “King’s Printers.” According to one historian, “after the Restoration, some of those who had operated the printshop in Blackfriars before the war were reinstated as King’s Printers at Hunsdon House, Blackfriars, and given a grant to print and sell books in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, with the sole privilege of printing the Bible in Latin and all grammars in Greek and Latin.” [Map]
Irwin Smith describes two paths that led east from Water Lane to the western range buildings, one leading to the stairs that led to the Frith apartment, the other running east then south around the river end of the range that held the Parliament Chamber. In Oxford’s time this southern path would have run very close to the river. By the time the maps were drawn up in mid-17th century, it seems the river had dropped to a lower level, leaving a large empty area between buildings and the river, probably mudflats exposed at low tide. Says Smith, who studied many old maps of the area in the course of his research, “Its course is unquestionably indicated by the Printing House Lane of today” (106).
In any case, as we can see by comparing maps (Ogilby 1676, Roque 1738), in 1583, when Oxford did what he could to save the theater/school from foundering by taking over its lease, the school and Field’s printshop were no more than a few doors from each other.
Shakespeare, Oxford and the Chronicles
When Oxford began writing the history plays for the Queen’s Men in the 1580s, where did he get his sources? We know that he owned Amyot’s French translation of Plutarch, for there’s a record of him purchasing it in 1569. He probably also owned North’s English translation of Amyot’s version, but if not, he would have found it at Field’s, for Vautrollier had published it in 1579.
The second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, published originally by Henry Bynneman in 1577, was published by Richard Field in 1583, the edition that the orthodox accuse Shakespeare of plagiarizing since chunks of the same language appear in some of his plays. The 1587 edition was published by a consortium of five stationers including John Harrison and the same George Bishop to whom Richard Field had been apprenticed in 1579, who then passed him on to Vautrollier. Field too had a close relationship with Harrison, who was one of the publishers of the 1587 edition and also one of its compilers. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, printed by Field in 1593, was sold in Harrison’s shop. Of the 27 books Harrison published from 1590 to 1596, 17 of them were printed by Field (Kathman).
In his younger years, John Harrison had been a colleague of Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, the two of them working together on material for the original work first conceived by Reginald Wolfe back in the 1560s (Dewar Republica xx). This plus the Shakespearean crossovers with the 1587 edition of the Chronicles suggest that Oxford was involved to some extent in the revisions of that edition. (Apart from Richard Stanihurst, other editors are assumed though none are known for certain; Hollinshed died in 1580.) The revision to which Hollinshed’s name has become attached was an extention of a long ongoing (and troubled) project that had originated in 1548 by a changing consortium of historians and publishers who saw the need for a modern history of the British Isles. (It would eventually be superceded by Camden’s Britannia, which timing suggests was something of a rival, conceived in 1577 at the same time as the first edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles and published in 1586, shortly before the 2nd edition of Holinshed.)
How and why would Oxford have become involved in revising the 1587 edition? 1586-87 is well within the window of time during which the theater/school at Blackfriars may still have been in operation, and even if not, Blackfriars was still familiar to Oxford as must have been Field’s printshop with its copies of so many of Shakespeare’s sources. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Oxford was not only a writer and a patron of writers, he was also a publisher, probably of a great deal more than he’s been credited with.
As one of the most highly educated men of his time and a product of Sir Thomas Smith’s tutelage, who passed along to him his interest in Roman and English history, Oxford ranked as high in scholarship as any of the men whose names became attached to this early effort to provide a reliable national history in English. He would have been aware of Smith’s early involvement, and so, when Smith’s colleague William Harrison promoted an updated version of the 1577 edition, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Oxford got involved, particularly if he happened to be researching some of the same areas for the history plays he was writing, and revising, for the Queen’s Men. It’s also possible that he inherited from Smith and/or his father’s estate, manuscripts that shed light on the events documented in the 1587 edition where the wording later found its way into Shakespeare. Later, in the throes of composing a play that turned on events discussed in the Chronicles, it never occured to Oxford that someday scholars would be puzzled that the language he used was the same as that in the 1587 edition of the Chronicles.