Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England

Cornell University Press, 1996

Passage of the first copywright law in 1710 marked a radical change in the perception of authorship. According to Laura J. Rosenthal, the new construction of the author as the owner of literary property bore different consequences for women than for men, for amateurs than for professionals, and for playwrights than for other authors. Rosenthal explores distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate forms of literary appropriation in drama from 1650 to 1730. In considering the alleged plagiarists Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, John Dryden, Colley Cibber, and Susanna Centlivre, Rosenthal maintains that accusations had less to do with the degree of repetition in texts than with the gender of the authors and the cultural location of the plays. Questions of literary property, then, became not just legal matters but part of a discourse aimed at conferring or withholding cultural authority.