units of play-reading; or, the amazing disappearing ¶

[This post was inspired by recent correspondence with Keith Houston, author of the terrific blog Shady Characters The secret life of punctuation and the book of the same name. A few days ago, Houston posted about "the death of the paragraph" over at his site. What follows here expands on Houston's conclusions with some meditations on the disappearance of the pilcrow (¶) in early modern printing, specifically playbooks.

I have just returned from Montréal, where I attended the annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (or, SHARP). There, I presented a paper on damaged or incomplete or imperfect—comme vous voulez—copies of printed playbooks (all from the Folger Shakespeare Library's collection) whose missing pages have been supplied in manuscript. I don't wish to rehearse that whole argument of that paper here, but the way these manuscript supplements compel us to consider the wholeness of the book offers a good entry point for the topic of this post: the various ways in which units of play-reading came to be defined. 

The Tragedy of Darius (1603), STC 349, Folger. (Photo by Abbie Weinberg)

For the scribes responsible for supplying the text of the missing pages in these playbooks, the unit of reading was the whole play, or the whole playbook. The pen facsimilist at work in the Folger's copy of William Alexander's The Tragedy of Darius (1603), for example, has copied every detail of the title page (except the horizontal ornament) and taken steps to reproduce (i.e., outlined in pencil) the tail piece on the very last page of the book.

The scribe of the supplementary pages of The Two Maids of More-Clacke (1609), Copy 5, is also emphatic about signaling the end of the play (or "Finis") and thus the whole play as the primary unit of reading.

The Two Maids of More-Clacke (1609), STC 773 (Copy 5), Folger.

"[I]t could be argued," William H. Sherman writes, "that the words an signs that signal the final boundary of a text, telling its readers that it is a discrete and in some sense complete unit, do more to make it a book, and to announce it as such, than any other feature (with the possible exception of the stitching and binding). In a very real sense, a text cannot be a book until it is finished."[i] There is indeed evidence that early modern readers also treated the whole play(book) as the unit of reading. See, for example, the last page of the second quarto of Englishmen for My Money; or, A Woman Will Have Her Will (1626), where the reader has simply written "perlegi" (Latin for "read") underneath the printed "FINIS."

Englishmen for My Money (1626), STC 12932, Folger.

By the second decade of the seventeenth century, act divisions began appearing with some regularity in the books of plays first performed or revived in the indoor theaters. Gary Taylor has argued that the appearance of these divisions in professional playbooks (translations of the classics had featured act divisions for some time) were textual residue of the intr'acts needed to trim the candles during indoor performance.[ii] How scene divisions became a typographic convention in printed plays is such a complicated story that I'm dedicating two chapters of my monograph-in-progress to telling it. Part (but not all) of that story reveals that the scene as a unit of action (circumscribed by entrances and exits) and the scene as a unit of place (circumscribed by changes in scenery) competed typographically to structure readers' encounters with printed drama, especially from the 1630s onwards. (Stay tuned.)

But before acts and scenes became conventional features of dramatic typography, there was the pilcrow (¶), that (recently-again-trendy) non-alphabetic glyph that had scaffolded the reading of all kinds of textual genres (especially devotional and scholastic texts) long before the advent of the printing press in Europe.[iii] A few weeks ago, Keith Houston reached out to ask about the disappearance of pilcrows from printed texts. He was preparing to present at a punctuation workshop—I know! Jealous!—and wanted to pick my brain about why the pilcrow—such a powerful graphic mechanism in both manuscript and print for so long—fell out of regular use. Usually my go-to for questions like this, Malcolm B. Parkes doesn't have anything to say about this in his magisterial Pause and Effect, and Houston's own chapter on the pilcrow in Shady Characters also slips over the pilcrow's fate in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With regards to new print technology in the late fifteenth century, Andrew Haslam offers the following explanation:

The black text of each paragraph [in incunables] was indented to allow for the red pilcrow to be inserted by hand after printing, but the space then made the pilcrow redundant. With the advent of hand-composition and advances in the speed of printing, calligraphic insertions of red pilcrows became a contrivance.[iv]

Fedele & Fortunia (1585), STC 19447 (Copy 1), Folger.

Haslam is concerned with the hand-rubrication of early printed texts, but he would presumably find printed pilcrows to be as much of a contrivance. However, as I have argued elsewhere, pilcrows were mobilized in playbooks printed in England during the first half of the sixteenth century not as a "contrivance" but rather deliberately to articulate the features of dramatic form and to make printed plays (ostensibly texts designed to facilitate performance) read like plays.[v] In other words, they were not simply holdovers from scribal convention, even though printers of these texts clearly knew their potential for structuring readerly engagement. Initially appearing at the start of each new speech (regardless of length), pilcrows began their work on the dramatic page by articulating the unit of dialogue as the primary unit of play-reading. (See the image of Fedele and Fortunia for an example.) They also started appearing in front of descriptions of entrances, exits, and other "business" to signal these non-verbal elements as equally important formal components of the play. (See the image of Promos and Cassandra for an example.)

Promos & Cassandra (1578), STC 25347 (Copy 1), Folger.

After being a mainstay of dramatic typography for the better part of a century, pilcrows all but disappeared from the pages of printed plays by the 1590s. By this time, play-reading had become a more familiar practice, and the utility of pilcrows in breaking the text down into formal units, was no longer necessary.[vi] While I don't agree with Haslam's assertion that pilcrows were merely a "contrivance" after the advent of printing, he is right to point out that the absence of pilcrows created indents which "are today the most frequently used form of articulating paragraphs. I think Haslam is fundamentally right that pilcrows fell out of regular use because new design protocols (i.e., the indent) emerged with the development of moveable type and ongoing experiments with typographic arrangements. Based on my research with printed plays, though, I would venture to fill out out Haslam's account in two ways, one technical and the other more… historical/philosophical?[vii]:

FIRST. One of the major (and obvious) constraints of printing a text is type supply. Early modern printers had a limited supply of every type sort and, sometimes, if the demand on a certain sort was too high, they ran out of it. (One really good example of this is printer-publisher Richard Jones's 1590 edition of Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine, which features multiple characters whose names begin with 'T'. The demands on the italic 'T' are so high that the printer has to resort to using lower-case italic 't's in speech prefixes. It looks like shoddy printing, but it's just a symptom of limited supplies.) I believe that this is how/why pilcrows began to phase out of a lot of printed matter by the end of the sixteenth century. The exceptions would have been printers charged with producing large, high-end books (Bibles, for instance), who were commissioned for such projects because they had the type supply to handle them. So, what you end up seeing in a lot of sixteenth-century playbooks are efforts to implement certain patterns of pilcrow use, but because of type supply, that pattern is not applied consistently throughout. I don't think it's a case (at least in this transitional period) of indents (i.e., a blank) being easier to set than a pilcrow. They both required the same amount of labor on the part of the compositor. Haslam also intimates (although he doesn't make it all that explicit) that many incunabula that left spaces for a rubricator to supply pilcrows by hand did not ultimately get rubricated. That meant that readers may have grown used to reading the spaces as stand-ins for pilcrows (and therefore equally effective in signaling the start of a new unit of text). 

SECOND. As Houston demonstrates clearly and repeatedly throughout Shady Characters, typography and mise-en-page are inherently instructional. It is rare to find a book that explicitly instructs readers in how to navigate its typographical arrangements because it's those arrangements themselves that teach us how to navigate. For this reason, typography/book design is a conservative medium.[viii] Once readers are used to using certain symbols and other features of mise-en-page to navigate books, printers risk alienating their readership if they experiment too much with what works. In this way, the printed pilcrow is a skeuomorph for the manuscript capitulum. It helps ease readers into a new medium—it's probably not strictly necessary, but it adopts a feature of the previous technology so the newer one doesn't feel so foreign. But once readers understand from the particular placement of pilcrows how to navigate the mise-en-page of a typical playbook, for example, they no longer need the scaffolding that the pilcrows provide. It's like readers become able to ride the bike without training wheels. Coupled with the problem of type supply I mentioned above, this new readerly proficiency is what ultimately makes pilcrows redundant in all but the most expensive print genres. 

In the end, pilcrows afforded printers—and readers—a very early textual means by which to articulate the basic units of play-reading. Play-reading was (and is) tricky because of its inter-modality. Typography has the potential to bridge the divide, and the experiments that allowed printers, publishers, and playwrights to do so are there if we know to look for them. I’ll soon be turning my attention to the 1580s and 1590s for a chapter on Richard Jones and his experiments with division, especially in his 1590 octavo edition of Tamburlaine. These decades witnessed a sea change in the way plays were designed to be read. Out with the pilcrow, and in with the…


[i] William H. Sherman, “The Beginning of ‘The End’: Terminal Paratext and the Birth of Print Culture,” in Renaissance Paratexts, ed. Helen Smith and Louise Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[ii] See Gary Taylor, “The Structure of Performance: Act-Intervals in the London Theatres, 1576-1642,” in Shakespeare Reshaped, 1606-23, ed. Gary Taylor and John Jowett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 3-50.

[iii] See Keith Houston, “The Pilcrow,” in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), 15–16; and Malcolm B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 43 and 302.

[iv] Andrew Haslam, Book Design (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2006), 73. Thanks to Houston for directing me to this reference.

[v] See Claire M. L. Bourne, “Dramatic Pilcrows,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 108.4 (2014): 413-452.

[vi] “Dramatic Pilcrows,” 449.

[vii] These thoughts are modified from my email correspondence with Houston about the disappearance of the pilcrow.

[viii] On the glacial pace of “typographic evolution,” see Goran Proot, “Converging Design Paradigms: Long-Term Evolutions in the Layout of Title Pages of Latin and Vernacular Editions Published in the Southern Netherlands, 1541–1660,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 108.3 (2014): 302.