Robert Daborne's Foul Papers and Fair Copies (1613) - MSS 1, Article 89

MSS 1, Article 89 (MSS-1/Article-089/01r)

Grace Ioppolo

Mr Hinchlow yu accuse me with the breach of promise, trew it is I promysd to bring yu the last scean which yt [i.e., that] yu may see finished I send yu the foule sheet & ye fayr I was wrighting as ye man can testify which if great busnies had not preuented I had this night fynished Sr you meat me by ye common measuer of poets if I could not liu by it & be honest I would giu it ouer for rather then I would be vnthankful to yu I would famish thearfor accuse me not till you haue cause if yu pleas to perform my request I shall think my self beholding to yu for it howsoeuer. I will not fayle to write this fayr & perfit the book which shall not ly one yr hands

yrs to command

Ro: Daborne

Lent at this tyme 20s

the 13 of november 1613

Twenty-six original letters from Robert Daborne to Philip Henslowe between April 1613 and August 1614 illuminate the wide-ranging artistic duties and obligations, as well as the financial grievances and complaints, of an early modern English professional dramatist.

To begin with, the commissioning of a new play was clearly a collaborative process between author and entrepreneur, however, Daborne suggested not only the play topics but the conditions of their composition. At the time of a contract, Daborne asks for an advance of £5 to £10 on his total fee of £20 per play, but often requests a further advance of 10 to 20 shillings against the remainder of his fee. Only in the contract for Machiavel and the Devil do the two men actually stipulate that some portion of the completed text must be submitted for Daborne to collect these interim advances, but the letters also suggest that this is the case for the other plays. For example, in Article 75 (MSS-1/Article-075/01r), Daborne states that on the following Tuesday night he will meet with Henslowe and Alleyn to ‘read some’ of his new play, although he is ‘vnwilling to read to ye generall company till all be finisht’. Daborne’s reluctance to read all of his play appears not to be due to modesty but his failure to have finished anything at all. He is probably gambling that within a few days he will have written enough to convince Henslowe and Alleyn that he will indeed deliver the entire play on time.

Daborne’s promise that he will read the completed play to the entire company, most probably the Lady Elizabeth’s Men, supports other evidence in Henslowe’s papers that dramatists read their newly finished plays aloud to the actors with whom they were working. This collaboration between author and actors suggests a strong working relationship between them not only during composition but after the play has been completed. As authors are suiting their material, and later revisions and alterations, to the general and individual talents of the company for which they are writing, authors needed comments and criticism from the actors, even if the actors simply said, ‘we haue heard their booke and lyke yt’ (MSS-1/Article-026/01r).

In Article 73 (MSS-1/Article-073/01r), Daborne promises shortly to ‘deliuer in ye 3 acts fayr written & then receau ye other 40s & if yu please to have some papers now yu shall’. Daborne also offers to write a new play based, as he tells Henslowe, on ‘perusall of any other book of yrs’. In succeeding letters, particularly Article 74 (MSS-1/Article-074/01r), Daborne continues to promise Henslowe ‘fair’ rather than foul sheets of his new play, even apologising, ‘Some papers I haue sent yu though not so fayr written all as I could wish’. Daborne also notes that he is aware of the new play that the company is ‘studyinge’. In Article 78 (MSS-1/Article-078/01r), Daborne acknowledges both that he has sent Henslowe ‘2 sheets more fayr written’ of Machiavel and the Devil and that he has asked Cyril Tourneur to write one act of The Arraignment of London.

However by November 13, 1613, as Article 89 demonstrates here, Henslowe finally had had enough of Daborne’s procrastination and has threatened to bring a suit for ‘breach of promise’ against Daborne for failing to deliver a fair-copied, completed play. In desperation, Daborne has reluctantly surrendered a foul sheet of one or more pages only because he was interrupted in the act of copying, apparently by Henslowe’s associate, who showed up to collect the promised fair copy. Daborne then delivered an incomplete fair copy, but to prove that he has completed the entire scene he takes the unusual step of sending a ‘sheet’ from his foul papers, presumably for the portion he has not yet had time to fair copy but which concludes the scene. However, Daborne has also promised of that foul sheet, ‘I will not fayle to write this fayr & perfit the book’. Thus the foul sheet has been used as proof that the text was written and not as a substitute for fair copy. When pressed, Henslowe seems to have made an exception here in taking a foul-paper sheet as a token of work in progress, in lieu of the customary fair copy.

Daborne’s promise here and elsewhere to supply a ‘perfit’ or ‘perfited’ ‘book’ implies that a ‘perfect’ text was a fair copy, which could be used for licensing and in the theatre, thereby saving Henslowe the expense of having it copied by a professional scribe. Henslowe’s practices were, in this respect, undoubtedly standard in the period, and what he required of his dramatists almost certainly matched the conditions of other commissioning agents and acting companies, otherwise his business interests and revenue could have been severely undercut by his competitors. At least by 1613 this distinction between ‘foul’ and ‘fair’ copy was firmly in place.

In his complaint here that Henslowe assesses him by the ‘common measure of poets’ Daborne may be interpreting Henslowe to mean that, like others, Daborne never finishes on time or alternatively is always begging for money. However here, as in his other letters, Daborne continues to insist on his artistic integrity. In another letter, Article 91 (MSS-1/Article-091/01r), he assures Henslowe, ‘Sr if yu doe not like this play when it is read yu shall hau the other which shall be finished wth all expedition’. To impress Henslowe and himself is Daborne’s chief concern, for this offer concludes with the promise, ‘befor god this is a good one & will giu yu content’. For Daborne, artistry and economics were inseparable: in Article 78 (MSS-1/Article-078/01r), for example, he advises Henslowe, ‘I pray sr let yr boy giue order this night to the stage keep [i.e. manager] to set up bills agst [i.e. for] munday for Eastward hoe & one [i.e. on] wendsday the new play’. Daborne’s concern with advertising his new play and Eastward Ho, a controversial play by Chapman, Jonson and Marston being revived by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men, would have been second nature to a man who had previously co-managed one or more companies. If Daborne’s role is typical for a short-term dramatist, hired to deliver five plays in one year, it would be crucial for a long-term dramatist, such as Heywood, who was attached to Henslowe’s companies for several years and who collaborated with other long-term dramatists such as Chettle, Drayton and Dekker.[1]


1.On the transmission of dramatic manuscripts from author to audience, see Grace Ioppolo, Dramatists and their Manuscripts in the Age of Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton and Heywood: Authorship, Authority and the Playhouse (London: Routledge, 2006). Back to context...