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How were plays in Tudor or Jacobean England advertised (e.g. did they use posters, street-hawkers, etc.)? And how much information would these advertisements have contained?

Would an advertisement have said "Much Ado About Nothing is about two lovers called Beatrice and Benedict"? Or would it have just advertised a new comedy by Shakespeare?

2 Answers 2

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During the Elizabethan era, the playhouses had been established outside the city of London in order to avoid being subject to London rules, especially those promoted by puritans who were against the theatre. Some of these were located in Southwark, south of the Thames. This made advertising the play a bit more difficult than it would have been if the playhouses had been located in the city.

In Making Shakespeare: From Stage to Page (Routledge, 2004), Tiffany Stern writes,

A number of solutions were devised. At one stage, the players sent posses across the Thames with drums and trumpets, shouting out the name of that day's play; later, they covered London with advertisements ('bills'), filling the city with printed mementoes of the theatre it had so pointedly rejected. An alternative system of visual imagery also came into being, able to market to the literate and illiterate alike; the theatres' appeal was broad and extended over different classes. When a play was to be performed, the Surrey playhouses flew flags from their rooftops to herald the fact. In that way, the buildings themselves could advertise across the water. 'Each Play-house', as William Parkes explained, 'advanceth his flagge in the aire, whither quickly at the waving thereof, are summoned whole troopes of men, women and children.' The flags bore signs linked to the name of the theatre: a Swan for the Swan, (...) a rose for the Rose, a symbol for the rose-gardens the theatre replaced.

According to George Tawse, writing in the 1880s,

Playbill was the word used since the very beginnings of the English stage. It was the word used before Shakespeare came to London. Said an adversary of the stage in 1579, "They used to set up their bills upon posts some certain days before, to admonish people to make resort to their theatres."

The author goes on to claim that Shakespeare also wrote the playbills for the theatre company of which he was a member, even though no evidence for this claim is presented.

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The questions asks,

Or would it have just advertised a new comedy by Shakespeare?

Although no play-bills have survived from the English theatre of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we have a letter from poet laureate and playright John Dryden to his cousin, containing an observation on the practice of naming the playwright in the advertisement, which he says was an innovation in the late 17th century:

This Day was playd a reviv’d Comedy of Mr Congreve’s calld the Double Dealer, which was never very takeing; in the play bill was printed,—Written by Mr Congreve; with Severall Expressions omitted: What kind of Expressions those were you may easily ghess; if you have seen the Monday’s Gazette, wherein is the Kings Order, for the reformation of the Stage: but the printing an Authours name, in a Play bill, is a new manner of proceeding, at least in England.

John Dryden (4th March 1699). Letter to Elizabeth Steward. In Charles E. Ward, ed. (1942). The Letters of John Dryden, with Letters Addressed to Him, pp. 112–113. Duke University Press.

If Dryden was right about this, then it is doubtful whether Shakespeare’s name appeared on the play-bills for his plays. Most likely (as with films today) it was the actors who drew the crowds and not the writers.

Some indication of the attitude of theatre companies to their publicists can be gathered from The Transproser Rehears’d (1673) by Richard Leigh, a poet and an actor in the Duke of York’s theatre. This pamphlet was an attack upon Andrew Marvell’s The Rehearsal Transpros’d (1672), and when Leigh needed a devastating insult for Marvell, the first thing that came to mind was to portray the latter as a writer of play-bills and other advertisements.

The Author† of the Animadversions upon the Preface to Bishop Bramhalls Vindication, &c.‡ (if it be not too great a favour to call him an Author that writes a Book upon a Preface) having potted up a Play-Bill for the Title of his Book: And here by the way, we cannot but congratulate his honourable employ, and question not but to hear of his being prefer’d from writing of Bills for the Play-houses to penning of Advertisements for the Stage-Coaches and Bills for the Pox, and after a proficiency therein, to be admitted upon the next vacancy, to form Draughts for the Arithmetick and Shorthand-men, and frame Tickets for the Rope-dancers and the Royall-Sport of Cock-fighting, that so he may arrive in a short time to be Author of most of those ingenious Labours which curious Readers admire at Pissing times in their passage between White-hall and Temple-bar.

Richard Leigh (1673). The Transproser Rehears’d, pp. 1–2. Oxford: assigns of Hugo Grotius and Jacob Van Harmine.

† That is, Marvell. ‡ That is, The Rehearsal Transpros’d.

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