Zachary Lesser’s Shakespearean forensics

The Edward W. Kane Professor of English uses ghosts, holes, and scrapes to learn more about how Shakespeare’s work was seen in his own time.

Seven years ago, Zachary Lesser went down a rabbit hole that led to him examining 350 copies of Shakespeare’s plays all over Europe and the U.S., and ended with him writing a book about what he learned. “Ghosts, Holes, Rips and Scrapes: Shakespeare in 1619, Bibliography in the Longue Durée” challenges some long-held perceptions about how Shakespeare was seen in his own time.

Zachary Lesser headshot (left), and book cover for “Ghosts, Holes, Rips and Scrapes: Shakespeare in 1619, Bibliography in the Longue Durée” at right.

Lesser, Edward W. Kane Professor of English, had just taught a class with Peter Stallybrass, now an emeritus professor of English. They used the 1619 Pavier Quartos, the first collection of Shakespeare’s work, to address questions of authorship, style, and the history of publishing and reading.

It started Lesser thinking more about the history of these quartos, which can be seen as a kind of bootleg collected works. Analytical bibliographers examining the texts in the early 20th century realized that the copies, despite having different dates and printers’ names, had all been printed at the same time by the same person. Since then, scholars have believed that a publisher named Thomas Pavier put out the collection in 1619, but Shakespeare’s acting troupe, the King’s Men, asked the Lord Chamberlain to issue an order forbidding the printing of any their plays. (It’s been thought that the King’s Men didn’t want to be scooped, since they put out their own grand edition of collected Shakespeare—the famous First Folio—four years later.) Following the Lord Chamberlain’s order, Pavier put false dates on his plays and split them up to make them look like leftover copies of early editions.

Since then, no one has gone back to look at the texts themselves. Over five years, Lesser did just that, examining about 350 copies in about 35 libraries from London to Geneva to Fort Worth, Texas, to Penn Libraries’ own Kislak Center. “Analytic bibliography is the study of textual objects,” he says. “It’s a kind of forensic analysis of books.” It was work that had to be done in person. “The ghost images I talk about are really hard to see on the page. You have to squint and make yourself cross-eyed a bit to see them.”

He also worked with the librarians to learn more about the history of the books and their conservation, saying, “The book would not be the book it is if not for the work that all of these librarians and curators did and the kind of expertise that they brought to the table.”

The result is “Ghosts, Holes, Rips and Scrapes: Shakespeare in 1619, Bibliography in the Longue Durée.” “Ghosts” are faint images caused by the interaction of ink on a page as it's pressed up against another for a long time. “Almost all of these plays have been bound, rebound, reconditioned, particularly in the 19th century,” Lesser says. “What these ghost images tell us is that at some previous point in their lives they were bound next to another book.” He found ghosts of title pages that let him reconstruct a census of lost bound collections and conclude that many more copies of the Pavier Quartos were sold as a bound set than previously thought.

Read more at OMNIA.