Happy birthday, Shakespeare!

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, Sp Coll BD8-b.1

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, Sp Coll BD8-b.1

This is a guest post by Allie Newman, currently a postgraduate student in Information, Management and Preservation. In September Allie will commence a PhD at the University entitled “Fine Conservation: Tracing the Influence of the Bindery of Douglas Cockerell & Son”

Happy birthday, Shakespeare! Or should we say Bard-thday? In honour of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (conveniently for celebratory purposes, he was born on April 23 1564 and died on the same day in 1616), the University of Glasgow has organized a great display of Shakespeariana (Thursday 21st April 2016 in Special Collections on level 12 of the University Library 4.30-6pm – all welcome!), including early quartos, items from the Scottish Theatre Archive, and, perhaps most spectacularly, the University’s copy of the First Folio.

The front binding of the First Folio, Sp Coll BD8-b.1

The front binding of the First Folio, Sp Coll BD8-b.1

But what is it that gives the First Folio VIP status at the party? Much Ado has been made of the recent discovery of another copy of the Folio on the Isle of Bute, and the Folger Library, which possesses the largest number of Folia in one place, keeps their finest copies in hermetically sealed chambers. Why all this fuss, when smaller quarto editions of some plays exist that were actually published during Shakespeare’s lifetime?

The reasons for the sustained popularity of the First Folio, and Shakespeare himself for that matter, are many and diverse. Considering the theatrical playing field in which Shakespeare produced his works is a topic for another blog post – a whole book, even – but it suffices to say that, while he was moderately popular in his own time, Shakespeare was certainly not considered the pillar of theatre and language that he is today. In fact, after his death, many of his plays lay dormant in their books due to the changing tastes of theatre goers, only to be reinvigorated through scholarship by poet Alexander Pope in the 1720s and further championing by actor-manager David Garrick in the 1740s1. The First Folio, on the other hand, was expensive from the day it was produced. £1 for a bound copy would have been exorbitant when the average wage in the 1620s was around £9.83 per year2, and prices have only risen since then. Even so, the Folio sold so well that it was reprinted 9 years after its first issue3 – a relatively quick turnaround at the time, and a good indicator of its popularity. The Folio’s status as a prestigious object may have contributed to its esteem, and for the first few centuries of its existence the majority of copies were owned by English aristocracy.

The works in the First Folio represent about 15% of the total number of plays that have survived from the Elizabethan-Jacobean period in which Shakespeare worked4. Indeed, without the publication of the Folio, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth and The Tempest, would have been lost. It is thanks to the heroic labouring of John Heminges and Henry Condell, working in some cases from original manuscripts and actors’ scripts, that this much of Shakespeare’s work survives. Heminges and Condell were close friends of Shakespeare and actors in the Chamberlain’s Men troupe, which originally put on many of the Bard’s plays; their names appear on the list of principal actors near the beginning of the First Folio.

Names of the principal actors, Sp Coll BD8-b.1

Names of the principal actors, Sp Coll BD8-b.1

Since before Shakespeare’s death, his works had been subjected to misrepresentation and downright piracy in the form of several unauthorised quarto editions of plays like Hamlet. Heminges and Condell strove to salvage the reputation of their friend’s work by producing a collection “published according to the True Originall Copies,” using primary sources and their own knowledge of the plays. They most likely elected the folio layout to lend more authority to their edition – the folio format, from which the First Folio takes its name, is a method of creating pages for a book that involves folding each sheet of paper only once to create two leaves. Quartos, on the other hand, involved folding a sheet of paper twice, which yields four leaves and a smaller book. Plays were most often published in quarto, as this format was cheaper, and folia were the domain of important works of religion and science. By elevating Shakespeare’s plays to such a high level, Heminges and Condell placed his works on a pedestal from which they have never truly descended.

Detail from The Tempest, Sp Coll BD8-b.1

Detail from The Tempest, Sp Coll BD8-b.1

Despite the choice of larger format, since 36 plays had to be accommodated, relatively small type (pica roman) was chosen, set in double columns to maximise space5. This led to some typographical difficulties; take, for example, the curious letter W in the word “was”, part of a line from The Tempest. This shows some printing ingenuity, as the sheer number of letters needed to fill a folio forme of double-column pica roman would have been difficult for a printer to manage. After all, there were a finite number of letters in their print cases, and if all of their W’s were tied up printing another page, they had to get creative using V’s. But perhaps more interesting is the underlining below the lines. This, as well as other annotations, most likely originated from an early owner of the Folio. No pattern has so far been found in the way this owner underlined passages, whether it was for his/her own interest or in relation to how the lines were emphasized. But certain notes are very clear:

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These names come from the principal actors list, as mentioned before. But the annotator has gone through the list and actually noted his personal experience of the actors, purporting to “know” Joseph Taylor and Robert Benfield and to have seen John Lowine “by eyewittnesse.” The note about Shakespeare himself reads “Least for making,” most likely indicating that he did the “least” acting as he was too busy “making” the plays.

Annotation in a different, later, hand. Sp Coll BD8-b.1

Annotation in a different, later, hand. Sp Coll BD8-b.1

A particularly curious notation in a different and later hand is written on the reverse of one of the book’s fly leaves. It rather morbidly reads, “Pitty it is the fam’d Shakespeare/ Shall ever want his chin or haire.” Perhaps it is a sort of memento mori, a reminder that death comes even to great people; or perhaps it is a comment on the quality of the famous portrait that faces the title page, which indeed shows a man wanting of some hair. If it is truly a memento mori, it is a fitting way to end this post, which is ultimately to celebrate the life of the Bard who gave us so much. If it is instead a jab at Shakespeare’s appearance, then perhaps it is best to heed the counsel of the page facing the portrait: “Reader, looke/ Not on his Picture, but his Booke.”

As part of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations we have prepared an album of Flickr images from the First Folio and Shakespeare productions in the Scottish Theatre Archive: https://www.flickr.com/photos/uofglibrary/albums/72157667108323492 


Much reference throughout the writing of this post was given to Bill Bryson’s 2007 book Shakespeare: The World as Stage, as well as to Julie Gardham’s 2001 “Book of the Month” post on Glasgow’s First Folio, which can be found at http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/july2001.html

1Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as Stage, p.173-174.

2Gregory Clark, Average Earnings and Retail Prices, UK, 1209-2010, https://www.measuringworth.com/datasets/ukearncpi/earnstudynew.pdf

3Bryson, p.165.

4Bryson, p.162.

5Steven K. Galbraith “English literary folios 1593-1623” in John N. King Tudor Books and Readers: materiality and the construction of meaning, pp.63-66 (nb. through use of sheet counts and with reference to the cramped typographical layout, Galbraith argues that the First Folio has been misunderstood as a “luxury folio” whereas, in his opinion, it was a necessary choice as the only viable format to print all of Shakespeare’s plays in one reasonably-sized volume)


Categories: Library, Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. A superb article which concisely explains what the first folio is and the interesting features of this particular book. Well done!

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