• Why We Should Celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio

    Six Scholars on the Most Important 844,421 Words in Literature

    Nine hundred pages, 1,233 dramatic characters speaking 844,421 words, but the most notable statistic is 36, as in the number of plays which appear in the first folio of William Shakespeare. Printed by the father-and-son pair of William and Isaac Jaggard at their shop near St. Paul’s Cathedral, 750 copies of the first folio would be produced and sold in 1623. Never before had works of drama been compiled into one compendium such as this, an elaborate (and heavy) anthology – the playwright himself having passed away seven years before – which divided his corpus between tragedies, romances, and histories. The volume was designed to be a keepsake, something taken care of, treasured, and passed down, an estimation of drama’s importance that was comparatively novel. There were a variety of valedictory poems affixed to the beginning of the anthology; the iconic woodcut of the author as rendered by the relative novice engraver Martin Droeshout, the resultant picture of a balding man with an egg-shaped head becoming Shakespeare for most people. The folio was, in many ways, the book where as readers and thinkers, people first met him.

    If we’re still considering dimensions, then the most important number just might be 18 – the number of plays which appear for the first time ever in the folio. Slightly over half of Shakespeare’s plays had been previously published in the far more expendable quarto form, but the rest saw printers’ ink for the first time in 1623, which means that had the folio not been published, we might never have been able to read Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest. Of those 750 copies of the book in that initial run, around 233 are known to still be extant, with the largest bulk of them in a single location being the 82 held by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, directly across from the Capitol Building. A temple established for a single volume (and some other things as well, of course) Few printed books have ever exerted as much of a charged aura as Shakespeare’s first folio, arguably not even Guttenberg’s Bible. There is, obviously, the issue of relative rarity and thus price – just this year one of the few remaining folios in private hands sold for a little under eleven million dollars.

    Yet as Shakespeare writes in Cymbeline, “All gold and silver rather turn to dirt!” for the value of the folio has always been in more than its price tag, rather there is a certain mysteriousness to the enchantments which the collection has cast for four hundred years. Often his adversary and sometimes his friend, Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Ben Jonson enthused in an introductory poem to the folio the oft-quoted contention that the Bard was “not of an age, but for all time.” The details of such a claim can obviously be debated, which the several scholarly experts whom Literary Hub has assembled on the occasion of this anniversary very well might do. Still, the fact that we’re discussing the folio such an incredible distance after it was first published at least answers that question partially, for it may be worth considering if that collection didn’t just introduce Shakespeare to the world, but that it also invented him.

    Joining me in a discussion of Shakespeare’s folio on this auspicious anniversary are four of the most esteemed Shakespeare scholars working today, whose writing encompasses questions of how we read the Bard in his own context, issues of race and gender in the plays, and the manner in which the reception of the playwright over the centuries has evolved. They include Brandi Adams of Arizona State University, an expert on book history; Tiffany Stern at the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom who is a specialist on early modern editing; Farah Karim-Cooper of King’s College London, who is also the director of education at the Globe Theatre; Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library; and Emma Smith of the University of Oxford who has written widely on Shakespeare’s reception.

    —Ed Simon

    Just seven years ago various publications and cultural institutions recognized the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s passing. What makes the posthumous publication of the first folio of all of his plays seven years later an event worth memorializing? Why should the printing of a book merit significant attention?

    Tiffany Stern: Shakespeare wasn’t writing plays while he was being born in 1564 or dying in 1616. So those are anniversaries of a person. But Shakespeare isn’t famous as a person, he’s famous as a playwright. This Folio anniversary is a celebration of what we actually admire Shakespeare for: a set of extraordinary plays. That’s why the Folio’s anniversary is so significant.

    Brandi Adams: People (particularly those who are fans of Shakespeare’s) seem to attach a great deal of meaning to the 1623 Folio of Shakespeare plays as an apotheosis of sorts–a culmination of all of his work into a single fancy volume. The book itself, I think, functions as a living memorial to him, and one that is very tangible (thanks to the efforts of librarians, archivists, administrators, and other staff in university, public, and private libraries as well as other institutions to exhibit the book). For many people seeing the book is perhaps much easier to get a glimpse of the book than making a pilgrimage to Stratford to visit Shakespeare’s grave. I think it can be a reminder to people of a set of plays that have special meaning to them, whether they’ve seen or acted in memorable performances, have learned from influential teachers, or have enjoyed reading the plays on their own.

    The book itself, I think, functions as a living memorial to him, and one that is very tangible.

    As for the printing of that particular book meriting attention,  I think that it is a way for the general public to get an introduction to the complex nature of the printing of all early books–and Shakespeare’s 1623 folio provides the opening to that discussion. Learning the history of how the book was constructed is vital to understanding that this was never just Shakespeare’s work. This 1623 Folio had so many people involved in its creation and we should acknowledge their active work in the collection’s production–whether it was  setting the type, completing onsite copyediting, rolling ink over the type, pulling the horizontal levers to press the platen in order making the impressions on the paper, ordering the pages, sewing them together, and then eventually sending the copy off for binding–all of these steps involved intense physical labor that went into this process. And it is also necessary for readers to know that even with all the care that people put into this work, no two copies of the 1623 are alike because of the complexities of the process. The book is not perfect. For me, it makes it more interesting because it is not perfect. In the end, this invites us all to think about the instability of the text that so many readers, actors, directors, and scholars hold dear.

    Michael Witmore: There is no doubt that the First Folio was conceived as a memorial of sorts, an idea that was carried over into the design of the Folger Shakespeare Library itself, which in 1932 was understood as a living memorial to Shakespeare. (Few people know that the original full name of the Folger is Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library.) If one looks closely at the Paul Cret building that houses the collection, one can see the typography from the Folio that was adopted for the inscriptions on the building. Having an architectural memorial enclose a bibliographic one is an intentional feature of the design. Quotations chosen to appear outside and inside this deliberately “bookish”  building further reinforce the idea that the Folio is a monument surviving time, just as the lyric poet preserves the beauty of the beloved in verse..

    Farah Karim-Cooper: I agree that the 400th celebration of the Folio marks an anniversary of the works, which from a theatrical point of view, is what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. But I think the Folio is also significant in that it invited and encouraged a readership of Shakespeare, and while this is accompanied by the danger of him being seen as a static monument or the works untouchable, preserved in aspic, it enabled Shakespeare to be read widely, and therefore more performed and translated globally. It actually created more opportunities for Shakespeare to be interpreted and adapted and owned by everyone who comes into contact with the plays.

    It’s the moment when these plays leave behind their author, their original actors, audiences, and playhouses, and make a bid for freedom.

    Emma Smith: I think what’s significant about this anniversary is, as Tiffany says, it’s the anniversary of the work not the life. I’d add to that: it’s the moment when these plays leave behind their author, their original actors, audiences, and playhouses, and make a bid for freedom. Ben Jonson’s famous ‘not of an age but for all time’ is a kind of envoy – sending this book into the future.

    The folio may have been the first comprehensive volume of Shakespeare’s plays, but it wasn’t the first time that he was printed. What would be different about what we know about Shakespeare and how he is remembered had the folio never rolled off the printing press four centuries ago?

    Brandi Adams: Christopher Marlowe would have been able to shine brighter throughout the longue duree (I am only partially joking here). I think that the study of early modern English theater would have included Shakespeare as one of many playwrights who added to a vital and exciting time in theatrical history. Collectively, without the 1623 Shakespeare Folio, we might know even more than we already do about other truly exciting playwrights working at the time. (Or at least we might get to teach them more often.)

    Michael Witmore: The inclusion of a Catalogue page that divides the plays into three genres – comedies, histories, and tragedies – is hugely important. That single act of classifying the plays  into three types is full of information, and researchers have been using these judgments from true domain experts) to identify linguistic features specific to individual genres. Without this initial labeling of the 36 plays, most analyses would be circular in ways that make the results uninteresting.

    Tiffany Stern: Before the Folio, eighteen of Shakespeare’s solely written plays had been published in little quartos or octavos (books made from sheets paper folded into four or eight). Those plays were sometimes in a good state, perhaps coming directly from the acting company, and sometimes, like The Contention of York and Lancaster (a version of 2 Henry VI) and Richard Duke of York (a version of 3 Henry VI), in a pretty corrupt state, apparently illegitimately acquired (a rough draft; a text scribbled down from notes and/or memory). So without the Folio, over half of the plays we love wouldn’t exist, and Shakespeare would not be ‘Shakespeare’. But the Folio also made the works of Shakespeare famous as reading texts. That became important when theatres were closed from 1642 to 1660; over those eighteen years people relied on reading Shakespeare’s Folio to remind them about what good theatre had been. Then, when playhouses opened afresh and there were no new plays – none having been written for eighteen years – people returned to Shakespeare’s Folio, amongst other plays, to kickstart their new theatre. So the Folio not only gave us Shakespeare, but kept him in circulation, both on page and stage. It’s because of the Folio that we still read and act Shakespeare today.

    It’s because of the Folio that we still read and act Shakespeare today.

    Emma Smith: Two things in particular: no attested image of the playwright – that’s done a huge amount for Shakespeare’s ongoing recognizability and, perhaps, perpetuated the (unhelpful) idea that this book is a kind of personal biography. And if you look at the spread of Shakespeare’s pre-1623 print presence, it’s particularly located in plays about medieval English history. As we know, these are plays with ongoing resonances about power, populism and succession, but they might also have suggested that the no-Folio Shakespeare was a more local figure, less likely to go global.

    Farah Karim-Cooper: We would think of Shakespeare, as Emma says, as a more local playwright, but also as a less theatrically daring one. During the Restoration period not everyone agreed that Shakespeare’s use of the supernatural and special effects was worthwhile. But plays like Julius Caesar with its cosmic and storm effects produced by fireworks and Macbeth with its thunder and lightning, owl screeches and witches give us a Shakespeare who was aware of the dynamic relationship between dramaturgy, language and theatrical effects.

    A book is arguably a collaborative product—what type of creative decisions did those responsible for the folio make which should be better known and understood? Men like the editors John Heminges and Henry Condell, or the printer William and Isaac Jaggard and publisher Edward Blount – how were they partial creators of the Shakespeare mythos? 

    Michael Witmore: There is so much that is known about the book, and so much that is not. If creativity is expressed in choices, we have reasonably satisfying explanations of the biggest choices that were made by the many responsible for this book. But we might learn more about the meaning of some of these choices, for example, the choice of a folio as both a practical solution to gathering 36 plays and as an expression of cultural prestige; the choice of a portrait as the predominant element on the title page; the choice to bundle or segment the plays by generic type. It is also interesting to ask about the ways in which the creation of the Folio is not creative. How does the First Folio unconsciously carry over conventions from theatrical practice or from earlier forms of play publishing, including Jonson’s folio? You can learn a lot from what people do automatically or unconsciously, and these aspects of the books design and production are necessarily de-emphasized when the book is characterized as a singular publishing event.

    Brandi Adams: Although I cannot definitively say that Heminges and Condell were the editors (at least in the ways we might think about the work in contemporary terms), their dedication of the book to the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery helped to establish it as important– one that needed to be shepherded into the world in a specific way. Presenting the 1623 collection as a monument to their deceased friend was indeed creative; it helped set the stage for how later editors of Shakespeare (including Nicholas Rowe in 1709 and Edward Capell’s ten volume edition of 1768) would begin to shape him into the figure readers and scholars are continually engaged with today. As for William and Issaac Jaggard’s and Edward Blount’s contributions, I highly recommend Ben Higgins book Shakespeare’s Syndicate that addresses the group of men (including John Smethwik and William Aspley–as well as some women including Isaac Jaggard’s wife Elizabeth) who made important decisions that lead to innovations in the creation, marketing and life of the 1623 Shakespeare Folio.

    Tiffany Stern: The Folio was published seven years after Shakespeare died; it is therefore ‘by’ people who put time and effort – that Shakespeare did not – into preserving his work. Brandi mentions above Ben Higgins’ excellent Shakespeare’s Syndicate on the four publishers who financed the Folio, Jaggard, Blount, Aspley and Smethwick, some of whom lost money as a result. And there were many other people involved in putting the Folio together too: the actors John Heminges and Henry Condell who gathered the plays; the scribe Ralph Crane who wrote (some of) them out in neat for the printers; the compositors who rendered them into type; the people who inked and pulled the pages. I’m particularly interested in the compositors (typesetters). We don’t know many of their names, and yet they were Shakespeare’s first ‘editors’. They had to read the pages of handwritten playtext that were pinned above their cases of type, and then determine how to spell, punctuate and capitalize each line, on the fly, while also making the same set of decisions for the next line. In a time of unfixed spelling, that’s tricky: and their decisions have shaped aspects of the layout, sound and rhythm of the Shakespeare we have.

    Emma Smith: Agree with everyone here! Someone put the history plays in order of the chronology of their kings, not of their composition, and reordered the titles to make what the theatre director Trevor Nunn has called ‘Shakespeare’s box-set’. That decision has shaped these plays in quite different ways from the experience of reading or seeing them as individual dramas. Since they went to that trouble on the histories, is there a logic to the order of the plays in the other two sections that we haven’t yet been able to discern?

    Farah Karim-Cooper: I agree with everyone too! What the editors and publishers of the Folio did was to establish a monument, not to a theatrical moment nor to the writer’s process, but to the imagination that emerges from the plays and to the man himself. We’ve spoken of the readerly identity of the Folio that was deliberately crafted and articulated clearly in the Epistle to the Reader. The collaborative effort to produce this book did indeed contribute to the Shakespeare mythos—it helped concretise ideas of his genius; for example, when the editors describe in the Epistle that Shakespeare’s hand and mind went together, they mean he barely made any errors. He was next to perfect.

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