Troilus and Cressida 3 of 9
“A never writer” must mean someone who had not written before.
“Never staled with the Stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar” means “never acted and applauded in the public Theatre”.
There is no strong reason to doubt this assertion since it was against the publisher’s interest to admit it - a play never publicly acted might be thought to be of inferior quality. The Epistle shows some awareness of this danger and attempts to make a virtue of necessity by treating the play’s virginity as a commendation. Since it had been acted somewhere before the S.R. entry of 1603, it can only have been “new” in 1609 in the sense of being new to the general public.
It is described as a comedy, but it is in fact a tragedy with comic interludes. No doubt the Epistle calls it a comedy to make it easier to sell.
“Your brain” in L.3 is odd - it was the birth of the author’s brain, not of the reader’s. More will be said of this later.
L4-7 take a swipe at all those grand and censorious people who disapproved of comedy plays, and in particular at the City (hence “commodities”) who had long been enemies of the public theatres, and at the Inns of Court, or rather their Benchers (hence “plays for pleas”). In 1611, two years after the publication of Troilus And Cressida the Inner Temple for a period banned all plays within its walls “for that great disorder and scurrility is brought into this House by lewd and lascivious plays”. And perhaps Benchers of the other Inns voiced similar disapproval from time to time.
In L17 “born in that sea that brought forth Venus” means “about Love”. A testern was a sixpence, the price of a copy of the play. “A new English Inquisition” is probably a jibe at Archbishop Whitgift’s bonfire in 1599 in which he had books he disapproved of burnt. The “new English Inquisition” would either be a more liberal censorship regime or else a repetition of the old.
The most important lines in the Epistle are L.26-9. As Stratfordians accept, they seem to mean:
“Thank fortune that this play has escaped for publication, since ‘the grand possessors’ of the Shake-Speare comedies (i.e, Shakspere’s company, the King’s Men) seem to want you to beg the company to release the comedies for publication, rather than their begging you to buy copies”. “Them” refers back: to “them” (i.e, the comedies) in L.23.
So, in this case, Shakspere’s company was unable to prevent the publication of Troilus and Cressida as they had been able to do with the publication of other plays. They were reluctant to release plays for publication, either because readers are less likely to be spectators or to prevent rival companies staging them. It did not authorise the printing of any Shake-Speare play from the Hamlet of 1604-5 till Othello in 1622. Bonian and Walley, knowing the company’s general policy in this matter, may not even have asked them to release Troilus And Cressida. To complete the interpretation of the Epistle, “prayed” in L.29 is used in its religious sense.
There is general agreement that this Epistle is very likely to have been written by a young lawyer from an Inn of Court. It has a facetious air; and a number of words with legal overtones, namely: (a) “titles”. Law suits have titles; (b) “commentaries”. A number of legal text books were called Commentaries; (c) “actions”. Law suits are called actions; (d) “judgments” and (e) “pleas”. A legal submission is a plea. Not only are there these words, but “plays for pleas” looks like a hit at the Benchers. This taunt would be likely to be made by an Inn Member since outsiders would have less interest in the Benchers’ attitude to comedies. The Arden editor, p. 309 concludes: “Whoever wrote the Epistle was in some sense connected with lawyers”; and W.W. Greg in his The Shakespeare First Folio (1955), p. 349, “The epistle is just what a young wit of the Inns of Court might be expected to throw off”.