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Thomas Thorpe: Adventurous Publisher

© 1996, Charles Michaels, Jr.

first appeared in Marlovian newsletter, 1994

Thorpe. Thomas Thorpe. Who was he? And how was he connected with Shakespeare? And with Marlowe?

Thomas Thorpe was born in 1569 or 1570 which made him 5 or 6 years younger than both Shakespeare and Marlowe. He was the son of Thomas Thorpe Sr., an innkeeper in Barnet, Middlesex.

In midsummer 1584 young Thorpe was apprenticed for nine years to Richard Watkins who had a shop at Little Conduit in Cheapside. Watkins, a respected member of the Stationers' Company, had been a Warden and its Master on several occasions.

On the fourth of February in 1594 Thorpe took up his freedom in the Stationers' Company and from then on he had the rights of a publisher, but not a printer. We don't know the whereabouts of Thorpe during the six years between the time he gained his freedom from his apprenticeship until 1600 when he published his first book.

That book on which Thorpe cut his publishing teeth in 1600 was Christopher Marlowe's THE FIRST BOOK OF LUCAN, Marlowe's translation from the Latin concerning the war between Caesar and Pompey. He had obtained it in a rather roundabout way. The work had originally been entered in the Stationers' Register by publisher John Wolfe in September 1593. At some later date its copyright was assigned to Edward Blount who sold it--or more likely gave it--to his young friend, Thorpe. Blount had become friendly with the publisher and remained so throughout Thorpe's career.

Edward Blount, according to Shakespearean scholar Sidney Lee, was a publisher of great integrity. Among his many publications were the first English edition of Cervantes' DON QUIXOTE, Marlowe's HERO AND LEANDER, John Florio's translation of Montaigne's ESSAYES, the first English-Italian dictionary, and Shakespeare's First Folio on 1623. Blount had also been a good friend of CM and of Marlowe's patron, Thomas Walsingham. We know this because when Blount published Marlowe's Hero and Leander early in 1598 he dedicated the book to TW and in the dedication referred to Marlowe as "the man that hath been dear to us."

When Thorpe published Marlowe's LUCAN in 1600, he took the unprecedented step of dedicating in to his friend, Edward Blount. Normally books were dedicated to nobility or men of proven distinction. The last words of the dedication to Blount confirms the close relationship between the two publishers: "Thine in all rites of perfect friendship."

Did Thorpe know Marlowe personally? It seems unlikely that he would have met Marlowe before 1594 up to which time Thorpe was an apprentice. So what are wee to make of Thorpe's dedication wherein he refers to Marlowe as "that pure elemental wit?" He goes on to say Marlowe's "ghost or genius can be seen walking in the churchyard in (at the least) three or four sheets." Are we seeing here the ghost of Marlowe floating through the St. Nicholas churchyard? Or the 'reincarnated' Marlowe with three or four manuscripts under his arm striding across St. Paul's churchyard towards Blount's shop at the sign of the Black Bear. Thorpe could have known Marlowe indirectly from his work and from what Blount told him, but he could have known him personally only if a conspiracy had taken place in Deptford and Marlowe had not been killed the year before Thorpe gained his freedom in the Stationers' Company.

In 1605 Thorpe's publishing career began in earnest. In that year he published George Chapman's ALL FOOLS and Ben Jonson's SEJANUS. The latter play again came to Thorpe through his friend, Blount. Various editors have noted the excellence of the text, and one wrote: "The exactness of the marginal annotations, the closeness with which the typography conveyed Jonson's metrical intentions, and the corrections made in proof all suggest that Jonson oversaw the printing himself."

In 1606, Thorpe published Chapman's THE GENTLEMAN USHER and Jonson's HYMENAEI. This was a very active time for Thorpe who in 1607 published John Marston's WHAT YOU WILL and Jonson's VOLPONE. The following year saw Thorpe publishing two more major dramatic texts: Jonson's MASQUES OF BLACKNESSE AND OF BEAUTIE and Chapman's THE CONSPIRACTY AND TRAGEDY OF CHARLES, DUKE OF BYRON which contains a dedication to his patron (who had been also Marlowe's patron), Sir Thomas Walsingham.

Queen Elizabeth had knighted Walsingham in 1598. This was a great honour since Elizabeth was known for her parsimony in conferring knighthoods. It was the other way around under James I, who would confer a knighthood on almost anyone who wanted one-so long as you paid him £30 for the honour. In the play EASTWARD HO, the collaborating authors, Jonson, CH, and Marston joked about the thirty-pound knights. James thought that not very funny and had them hauled off to jail.

In 1609 came Thorpe's blockbuster, SHAKE-SPEARE'S SONNETS. This gave him a black name for he supposedly published it without the author's authority and probably not even his knowledge. This supposed piracy led to tarnishing Thorpe's reputation Sidney Lee called Thorpe 'predatory and irresponsible,' a scoundrel who searched for neglected copy and appropriated what he could find, having no compunctions on publishing works without their authors' approval no matter how such copy had ben obtained.

Lee's assessment of Thorpe was never seriously questioned until 1960 when Leona Rostenberg published a book in which she revealed Thorpe's true character and his apparent integrity. That term, 'integrity' is exactly what Lee applied to Blount. It seems doubtful that Blount would have maintained a lifelong friendship with a scoundrel. What Lee evidently never considered was that whoever wrote the Sonnets, it was Thorpe who published them and if he hadn't, we would not have them today. So whether Thorpe had been authorized to publish them or not, we owe him a debt of gratitude.

Thorpe was certainly not the unscrupulous scoundrel Lee had claimed. Here's how Katherine Duncan-Jones assessed his character: "Thorpe's publications for Jonson, Chapman, and Marston identify him as a man to whom the most intellectual of the leading dramatists were likely to sell their texts. Jonson, in particular, had notoriously exacting standards, and in the case of the five works he sold to Thorpe, he clearly took great pains to ensure that the texts were excellent in all respects.Are we really to believe the man to whom the martinet Jonson entrusted those works would the following year snatch and maul a collection of poems by Shakespeare?" Not likely. Jonson evidently was delighted with Thorpe as a publisher. Thinking along traditional lines, since Shakespeare acted in Jonson's SEJANUS, Jonson could well have recommended to Shakespeare that if he wished to sell his Sonnets, Thorpe would be a good choice. And Ms. Duncan-Jones believes that Shakespeare did sell the manuscript to Thorpe. My belief is that Blount possessed the Sonnets and handed them to Thorpe for publication as he had done with other works.

Now, it does seem exceedingly strange in the strange and secret literary life of the Stratford Shakespeare, that he not only failed to authorize publication of 'his' sonnets, but apparently took no notice of the published work. Of course, IF he had nothing to do with them, his action-or, rather, lack of action-is readily understandable.

There are a number of oddities in Thorpe's dedication of the sonnets. First, we are struck with the unusual shape of the wording in the dedication. Secondly, every word in the dedication is followed by a period. Many people believe this is unique. Not at all; at least not with Thorpe who as we know published Jonson's VOLPONE two years before publication of Shakespeare's Sonnets. The dedication by Jonson had a similar shape to that which Thorpe composed for the Sonnets. Also, in Act 5 of the 1605 quarto of SEJANUS a proclamation by the Roman Senate is printed in capital letters with a period after each word.

Another factor overlooked is Thorpe's failure to praise Shakespeare in his dedication of the Sonnets. After all, he called Marlowe a pure elemental wit in his dedication of Lucan's First Book. Shakespeare's reputation in 1609 towered over Marlowe's. Why didn't he or Blount ever (as far as we know) mention the man Shakespeare while they both had a deal of good to say about Marlowe? We have authentic connections between Marlowe and Thorpe while any connection between Thorpe and Shakespeare is unsubstantiated assumption.

One of the strangest aspects of SHAKE-SPEARE'S SONNETS is that no one either in the dedication or in the Sonnets themselves is identified. Mr. W.H., the ever-living poet, the well-wishing adventurer, the young man who is urged to marry, the rival poet, the dark lady-none of them are identified. It's one big puzzle. Because of these mysterious unidentified characters inhabiting the Sonnets, Thorpe has been called 'the sphinx of literature.' One sonnet which has puzzled me in connection with the Stratford actor is sonnet 76 where the author cries out: "Why is my verse so barren of new pride. So far from variation or quick change? Why, with the time, do I not glance aside To new-found methods and to compounds strange? Why write I still all one, every same, And keep invention in a noted weed, That every word doth almost tell my name, Showing their birth and where they did proceed?" There's very good reason for Marlowe wanting to change his style because of the peril to his life if he were discovered among the living, but I can't see why the Stratford actor would worry about changing his style.

Publication of the Sonnets turned out to be the high point of Thorpe's publishing career, although sonnets by that time were considered old fashioned.

Thorpe's last entry in the SR was on 3 November 1624 when he and Edward Blount assigned over to Samuel Vicars, Marlowe's Hero and Leander.

In 1635, he was assigned a lodging in the attractive 15th century almshouse at Ewleme which was administered by the University dignitaries. Miss Rostenberg wrote that Thorpe died a pauper. Not so, says Katherine Duncan-Jones. "It must surely have been a very fortunate old man," she wrote, "who after an extremely hazardous professional career could end his days in such a well-ordered and secure establishment." She continues: "Ben Jonson, who died apparently in lonely misery in his chamber by Westminster Abbey, was scarcely so fortunate."

Thorpe has received a bad press solely because he published SHAKE-SPEARE'S SONNETS allegedly without the author's permission. A study of his career reveals an entirely different assessment of the man. Jonson, Chapman, and Marston respected his careful work and their frequent use of him as their publisher shows him to have been a publisher of merit.

Marlowe Lives!