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The Compositor of the "Pied Bull" Lear by Philip Williams
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The Compositor of the "Pied Bull" Lear
Philip Williams

THE MOST RECENT STUDY OF THE PRINTING of the controversial "Pied Bull" quarto of Lear remarks that the application of a spelling test to determine the number of compositors employed remains a desideratum.[1] Following this suggestion, I have examined the text of the "Pied Bull" Lear and two other play quartos printed by Nicholas Okes, in an attempt to prove, if possible, the number of compositors employed.[2] The technique I use was first developed by Professor Charlton Hinman.[3] It consists, in brief, of identifying the orthographic habits and peculiarities of individual compositors. In addition to supplying three good examples of the reliability of Professor Hinman's test,[4] I think that I can show conclusively that only one compositor was engaged in the production of Lear.


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In order to prove that the "Pied Bull" Lear is the work of a single compositor, it is first necessary to examine two other dramatic quartos printed by Nicholas Okes. The information thereby obtained concerning the spelling habits of the compositors in the Okes shop can then be applied to the Lear quarto.

In 1612, four years after he printed the Lear quarto, Nicholas Okes printed the first quarto of John Webster's The White Devil. An examination of this quarto shows that two compositors were employed. One compositor (whom I designate B) never uses the apostrophe in the form Ile, although he regularly uses it in such forms as He'd, We've, and the like. In addition to this peculiar use of the apostrophe, Compositor B frequently uses ie for final y. The other compositor (whom I designate A) generally uses the apostrophe in the form I'le and, with certain exceptions mentioned below, never uses ie for final y. Both compositors invariably spell certain words with a final y. These words, which are not included in the tabulations because they are non-significant, are: any, away, lay, may, many, pray, say, way, and why. The appearance of Ile/I'le and final y/ie forms is given in the following chart.[5]

The tabulation shows that the alternation of the two compositors was not regular. Beginning with B1, Compositor A set B1, B1v, C1-F2v, G1-G2v, H2, H2v, H4, H4v, I3, I3v, I4v, K1, K3v-K4v, L3-M2v. The quarto consists of 88 pages, 87 of which contain letterpress (the verso of the title page is blank). Of these, Compositor A set 56 pages. The remaining 31 pages were set by Compositor B.[6]


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In 1609, one year later than the "Pied Bull" Lear, Nicholas Okes printed the first and only quarto of Robert Armin's The History of the Two Maids of More-clacke. An examination of the text of this quarto shows that, as with The White Devil, two compositors were engaged. The two compositors, moreover, are the same two whose work has been identified in the Webster quarto. The following chart shows the occurrence of the significant forms by which their identity can be ascertained.[7]


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In The Merry Maids of More-clacke, composing started with A1.[8] Compositor B set the following pages: A1, A2v, A3, B1-B2v, C1-C2v, D1-D3, E1-E2v, F1-F2v, G1-G2v, H1-H3, H4v-I2v. The title-page was probably set by B. The remaining 31 pages (out of a total of 70) were composed by A. The two compositors generally alternated after setting four type-pages, and the evidence of this alternation is, in the main, quite clear.[9]

By combining the evidence obtained from The White Devil and The Two Maids, and tabulating this evidence in percentages, the spelling habits of the two compositors can be summarized as follows:

I'le   Ile   y   ie   do   doe  
Compositor A  63%  27%  99%  1%  90%  10% 
Compositor B  100%  60%  40%  20%  80% 


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Turning now to the "Pied Bull" Lear quarto, we find that only one compositor was engaged in setting the book, and that this compositor is the Compositor B of The White Devil and The Two Maids of More-clacke. A tabulation of the characteristic forms upon which this spelling test is based is given below.



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The characteristics that distinguish Compositor B are at once apparent: the absence of the apostrophe in Ile forms, the frequent spellings in final ie, and the preponderance of doe spellings. When presented in percentage form, the figures for Lear are very close to the percentages arrived at by combining the evidence obtained from The White Devil and The Two Maids. In Lear, final ie is used 45% of the time as compared with 40%, and the doe form is used 72% of the time as compared with 80% for The White Devil and The Two Maids.

On only two pages, I believe, is the evidence inconclusive. On H4, we find seven final y's, no final ie spellings, and no Ile forms. The two doe forms suggest Compositor B but are not evidence enough upon which to assign him the work. On L4, the only significant forms appearing are seven final y's. As Compositor B has, however, set all of the other pages, it seems very likely that he also set H4 and L4.

The thirteen settings of the running-titles[10] that appear in the quarto all read The Historie of King Lear. On the strength of the ie spelling, I believe that these, like the rest of the text, were set by Compositor B.



Fredson Bowers, "An Examination of the Method of Proof Correction in Lear," The Library, Fifth Series (1947), II, 35 n.1.


This paper is a part of a larger study of Nicholas Okes' printing practices upon which I am engaged. Dr. Greg and Professor Bowers agree that in reconstructing the method of printing employed in Lear "we are bound to explain the peculiarities as the necessary outcome of some normal method of working" (W. W. Greg, The Variants in the First Quarto of "King Lear": A Bibliographical and Critical Inquiry, p. 45, as quoted in Bowers, op. cit., p. 40).


Charlton Hinman, "Principles Governing the Use of Variant Spellings as Evidence of Alternate Setting by Two Compositors," The Library, Fourth Series (1940), XXI, 78-94.


So far as I know, the only published examples of the extensive application of the spelling test are those offered in Professor Hinman's article.


Evidence supplied by the running-titles proves that printing started with B gathering, and that A1-A2v (containing the title-page and preliminary matter) was printed with M1-M2v by full sheet imposition. After printing, the sheet was divided. I have, therefore, arranged the pages in order of composition: A1-A2v follows M2v.


The evidence in certain pages is insufficient, and in five cases, somewhat ambiguous. The appearance of a single final y on the title-page is certainly insufficient evidence for assigning the page to A; but as A composed the two following pages, it seems reasonably likely that he set the title-page too. This suggestion becomes even more likely when we note that the pages immediately preceding the title-page (in order of composition) were also set by A. On pages E1, F2v, G1, H2v, and I2v we find a single final ie spelling conflicting with a preponderance of final y spellings; and on F2v, G1, and H2v conflicting with I'le forms as well. On E1, the form bodie appears as the final word of a full line, and the unexpected spelling may be explained as the method adopted for justifying the line. The spellings on G1, H2v, and I2v seem to be inexplicable exceptions to A's normal spelling habits. The conflict on F2v, however, is capable of explanation, and suggests a third characteristic that may be of some use in distinguishing the two compositors. The word merrie appears on the fourth line from the bottom ofthe page. In the preceding line, the word do appears three times, each time spelled do. On the last line of the page the word appears spelled doe. A tabulation of the occurrence of do/doe forms throughout the book reveals that B shows a marked preference for the doe form; A is predisposed toward the do form. It would, therefore, seem probable that Compositor A set the first 33 lines on F2v, and was then relieved by Compositor B who set the remaining four lines and the three following pages. (A similar case is cited by Professor Hinman, op. cit., p. 90).


As in the previous tabulation, words invariably spelled with a final y by both compositors are not included.


The evidence provided by the running-titles proves that printing began with text gathering A. As in The White Devil, the title-page and preliminary matter, consisting of two pages signed a, were printed along with the final two-page gathering by full sheet imposition. The running-title appearing on the versos reads "The History(ie) of the two". Four such running-titles are used. Two read "Historie", and were, I believe, set by Compositor B. The other two, reading "History", were probably set by Compositor A.


On certain pages the evidence is inconclusive, and on others, somewhat ambiguous. The one ie form on the title-page is hardly sufficient evidence to assign the composition of the title-page to B. On A4, one ie spelling (curtesie) conflicts with twenty y spellings. The same word, this time spelled "courtesie", appears on H3v, where it conflicts with ten final y spellings. On B4v, the form "weie" (for weigh) appears twice. I believe "weie" may have been A's normal spelling. On D4 and F3v, the spelling "busie" occurs; and on D4, we also find "obloquie". On the strength of these two ie forms on D4, plus the single Ile form and the one spelling doe, the page should probably be assigned to Compositor B. To do so, however, upsets the quite regular alternation that precedes and follows. On G3v, G4, and G4v, the single ie spellings seem to be inexplicable variations from A's normal habits. On B1 and D1, pages clearly composed by B, we find the form Il'e. A possible explanation may be that B, attempting to follow his copy closely, misplaced the apostrophe in setting the word.


Bowers, op. cit., pp. 21-22.