‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master,’ Elizabeth Bishop once famously wrote; ‘So many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.’ Much modern technology seems designed specifically to counter this natural human propensity towards loss. We have key rings that respond obediently to their owner’s whistle, immediately disclosing their location. We have iPhones to remind us of the title of that book we have just been reading, the name of the old friend we have just run into, the number of that bus that takes us home. Memory, once regarded as a human attribute, is now a term associated primarily with the computer. Yet for all these mechanical props and aids, we go on losing things just as we did before.
The same anxieties, the same paradoxes, were keenly felt in the early modern theatre. Play scripts were fragile objects, notoriously subject to damage, dispersal, and loss. The art they represented must often have seemed ephemeral in nature, even the most popular of plays ultimately vanishing at times without trace, like the scenes that Prospero describes at the conclusion of The Tempest, melting ‘into air, into thin air’. The new technology seemed (as it does today) to offer security against such losses, as printed playbooks began to emerge from the newly established publishing houses of London: at first in cheapish quarto editions and, as time went by, in more costly and imposing folio format. It is through the survival into modern times of so many of these printed play texts that we have some sense, however imperfect, of the richness of the age of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe.