Foul papers

Foul papers

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Foul papers is a term that refers to an author's working drafts, most often applied in the study of the plays of Shakespeare and other dramatists of English Renaissance drama
English Renaissance theatre
English Renaissance theatre, also known as early modern English theatre, refers to the theatre of England, largely based in London, which occurred between the Reformation and the closure of the theatres in 1642...

. Once the composition of a play was finished, a transcript or "fair copy" of the foul papers was prepared, by the author or by a scribe.

Few sets of foul papers actually exist from the era in question. Of the relatively small number of dramas that are extant in manuscript
A manuscript or handwrite is written information that has been manually created by someone or some people, such as a hand-written letter, as opposed to being printed or reproduced some other way...

, the majority are from the Caroline era rather than the Jacobean or Elizabethan, and most are fair copies of plays by professional scribes like Ralph Crane
Ralph Crane
Ralph Crane was a professional scrivener or scribe in early seventeenth-century London. His close connection with some of the First Folio texts of the plays of William Shakespeare has led to his being called "Shakespeare's first editor."-Life:What little is known of Crane's life comes from his own...

In a rare direct reference to foul papers and fair copies, Robert Daborne
Robert Daborne
Robert Daborne was an English dramatist of the Jacobean era.Little is known for certain of his birth, background, or early life; he may have come from a family in Guildford, Surrey. He is now thought to have been a "sizar"—an undergraduate exempt from fees—at King's College, Cambridge...

 mentions both in a November 1613 letter to theatrical manager Philip Henslowe
Philip Henslowe
Philip Henslowe was an Elizabethan theatrical entrepreneur and impresario. Henslowe's modern reputation rests on the survival of his diary, a primary source for information about the theatrical world of Renaissance London...

: "I send you the foul sheet and the fair I was writing" — which appears to indicate that Daborne prepared a fair copy of his working drafts as he wrote.

The best example of a set of foul papers from Shakespeare's era is the manuscript of Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More (play)
Sir Thomas More is a collaborative Elizabethan play by Anthony Munday and others depicting the life and death of Thomas More. It survives only in a single manuscript, now owned by the British Library...



  • Chambers, E. K.
    Edmund Kerchever Chambers
    Sir Edmund Kerchever Chambers was an English literary critic and Shakespearean scholar. His four-volume history of Elizabethan theater, published in 1923, remains a standard resource for scholars of the period's drama....

    The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
  • Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.

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