London: Iames Roberts for Nicholas Ling, 1599.
Octavo: 12 x 7.5 cm. [iv], 269,  lvs. Collation: A4, B-2M8, 2N4
Bound in 19th-century dark burgundy morocco, the boards framed by a blind-tooled row of foliage and two gilt fillets, spine gilded. With the signature of John Couchman dated 1699 on Hh1r. The text is in fine condition aside from some minor cosmetic faults to the first two leaves and trimming of the occasional catchword. The title, second leaf and the bank verso of the final leaf are soiled and there is a tiny hole in the blank area of the title, not affecting the text. The date has just been touched by the binder’s plough, without loss. In “The Table” at the end a few extra headings have been added in an early hand, and there are corresponding underlinings in the text. It is worthy of note that this is a complete copy. In this copy the Dedication is not signed and the text at the head of Bb1r is not corrected (a faint brown shadow over the uncorrected 4 lines may suggest that the correction slip was once pasted over). The title is occupied by a fine woodcut device.
“Wits Theater” was produced as part of a publishing project conceived by John Bodenham. The “series” began with Nicholas Ling’s “Politeuphuia: Wits Commonwealth” in 1597, and also included the poetic miscellany “Englands Parnassus” of 1600.
Like the later “Englands Parnassus”, “Wits Theater” was compiled by Robert Allott and may be regarded as the prose equivalent of the poetical “Parnassus”. In his introduction Allott explains the structure of his work. He defines for his readers “Two Worlds, the greater and the lesser.” The first is of things eternal, the second the world of man. In “Wits Theater”, he will focus on the latter:
“I have therefore called these lucubrations, or rather collections, "The Theater of the Little World," for that in it thou maist beholde the inward and outward parts of man, lively figured in hys actions and behavior.”
The book comprises “a collection of the flowers of antiquities and histories”, an epitomized view of the world of human endeavor, belief, achievement, and behavior, rich in excerpts, exempla, and commonplaces mined from numerous ancient and Renaissance authorities, as well as from Ling’s contemporaries. These literary luminaries include philosophers, poets, theologians, tragedians, historians, essayists, humanists, neo-platonists, astrologers, and chroniclers. Among these we may name a few to show their variety: Albumazar, Erasmus, Luther, Ovid, Vergil, Lispius, Augustine, Froissart, Petrarch, and the writer of the Polychronicon.
The quotations are arranged under a multitude of subject headings, including: art, astronomy, books, cursing, comedians, dicing, fashions and apparel, magic, martyrs, poets, pastoral poems, visions, schoolmasters, women, and of course, wit.
The purpose? Allott tells us up front: “The profit that ariseth by reading these epitomized histories is to aemulate that which thou likest in others, and to make right vse of theyr examples.”
This book was printed for Nicholas Ling, who was also the publisher of “Politeuphuia”, which Ling also wrote, and “Englands Parnassus”(1600), with its many excerpts from Shakespeare’s poetry. Significantly, Ling held the publishing rights to “Hamlet” from its very first printing (the “bad” quarto of 1603) through the second printing (1605) of the “good” quartos. The printer of “Politeuphuia” and “Wits Theater”, James Roberts, also printed both of the “good” Hamlet quartos (1603 and 1604) for Ling.
The book is very scarce and uncommon: ESTC lists just 7 copies in the UK, and 10 in the US in 8 institutions.
STC 382; ESTC S100300; Grolier, Langland to Wither 15; Pforzheimer 1094; Hoe catalog I: 59.