A special day
March 5, 2014
'Today is a special day'
We were just about to rehearse the death of King Henry IV in part two when Greg Doran sat us down.
'Today is a special day,' he said. I remember it pretty clearly. (I'm also repeating it for dramatic effect, if you hadn't noticed).
On the same day in 1598 – 25 February – The History of Henrie the Fourth was registered in the Stationers' Register.
That doesn't mean much until you rewind the story a tad.
What is a Stationer?
The Stationers' Company was a trade guild in control of regulating the publishing industry. They were in charge of early forms of copyright, seizing illicit books and controlling unlicensed literature. The Stationers' Register was a huge book which kept all their records.
In fact, the word Stationer means 'a tradesman who sells from a station or shop'. In medieval times roaming pedlars were more common and selling from a fixed location or a station was routine for booksellers in Elizabethan London. They built stations up against the wall of St Paul's Cathedral and hence came known as Stationers.
From Ludgate Hill to the stage: registering Henry IV
The Stationers' Register was in Ludgate Hill just north of Blackfriars Bridge. I cycled by that way after rehearsals to get an idea of where it was and found a posh Italian restaurant. Still, with some effort, you can imagine Shakespeare walking up the hill on 25 February 1598, manuscript in hand and getting it registered, in view of the Thames passing along to the South and beyond that, the Rose Theatre.
'A sixpence kind of play'
It cost between 4 pence and 6 pence to register your work; I like to think of Henry IV as a sixpence kind of play, and the decision to register was most probably a financial one. Henry IV had most likely been performed to huge popularity and by publishing and printing the script Shakespeare could cash in on eager fans wanting to read his works.
The Stationers' Register is the first written record of the play. And here we are, four hundred and sixteen years later in a church hall in Islington putting it on its feet.
It is a special day.
by Martin Bassindale
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