This article was originally published in 'Discover' magazine, issue 47, winter 2022.
Words: Helen Vincent.
One such book has the title 'Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published According to the True Originall Copies' – or, as it is better known, the 'First Folio' of Shakespeare's plays, published in 1623.
'First' because it is the first of four early editions of as complete a set of Shakespeare's plays as the editors could assemble, and 'Folio' after the format in which it was printed, with pages around the size of an A4 sheet of paper, generally used for books that were important and intended to last.
Shakespeare himself had nothing to do with the publication of this book. He died in 1616, well-known and having enjoyed popular success, with the status of having his works performed at court and the relative financial stability of being a business partner in a theatre company that enjoyed royal patronage.
But Shakespeare had been going out of fashion. In place of his style of drama, newer writers were producing satirical comedies and dark, twisted tragedies that played well to the young gentlemen of the Inns of Court who were the hipster influencers of their day.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Shakespeare does not seem to have been overly invested in getting his plays into print. Some were published in 'quarto' format (comparable to a cheap paperback or an e-book), but without his being involved in providing a good text – or even giving permission, in some cases. In short, Shakespeare's writings were in danger of barely surviving – or of disappearing altogether.
Enter John Heminges and Henry Condell, two members of Shakespeare's acting company, with Heminges as actor turned manager and Condell one of the leading players. They must have been close to Shakespeare, who left them each some money in his will to buy mourning rings.
Maybe this sparked the idea of remembering Shakespeare more effectively through his plays and the project to publish them in as impressive a volume as possible.
As they wrote in the dedication to the volume: "We have but collected them onely to keepe the memory of so worthy a Friend, & Fellow alive, as was our Shakespeare."
Heminges and Condell had worked alongside Shakespeare since the 1590s and perhaps their collection of his plays was also a tribute to their company's history of performing together – these plays were not just the records of Shakespeare's words, but memories of their own theatre, the Globe, which had burned down in 1613, and of favourite scenes, lines and moments on stage. This might be why the volume contains a list of the actors in the company as well as of the titles of the plays.
On a practical level, they may also have wanted to assert the company's rights to these texts, to warn off people who might print or produce them without permission.
The 'First Folio' brought together 36 plays. Scholars today believe that Shakespeare wrote some of these in collaboration with others, and two plays – 'The Two Noble Kinsmen' and 'Pericles' – are not included, nor are any of his poems.
But the great thing is that the 'First Folio' includes 18 plays which had never been printed before. Without this book, we would have lost 'All's Well That Ends Well', 'Antony and Cleopatra', 'As You Like It', 'The Comedy of Errors', 'Coriolanus', 'Cymbeline', 'Henry VI', 'Part 1', 'Henry VIII', 'Julius Caesar', 'King John', 'Macbeth', 'Measure for Measure', 'The Taming of the Shrew', 'The Tempest', 'Timon of Athens', 'Twelfth Night', 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' and 'The Winter's Tale'.
Without the 'First Folio', no one would ever say, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears", "If Musicke be the food of Love, play on", "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women, merely Players" or "Double, double, toyle and trouble, Fire burne and Cauldron bubble".
Shakespeare's takes on the tragical histories of Macbeth and Coriolanus, the witty playing with gender identity of Viola and Rosalind, the intricate mix of comedy, love and colonialism on Prospero's magical island all would be unknown to us today.The best thing about the 'First Folio' is that it enabled these plays to survive – people had texts that they could read, use in performance, and reproduce to pass on these wonderful words to future generations.
The 'First Folio' was just the first step on the road to the paperback editions many of us studied at school, to thousands of retellings and translations, to productions ranging from one-woman Fringe shows to epic films, and to websites that do everything from reproducing the original text with scholarly commentary to allowing us to watch videos of our favourite actors playing our favourite characters. This is exactly what Heminges and Condell wanted.
As they wrote: "It is not our province, who onely gather his works, and give them you, to praise him. It is yours that reade him. And there we hope you will find enough, both to draw, and hold you: for his wit can no more lie hid, then it could be lost. Reade him, therefore: and againe, and againe."
Our copy of the 'First Folio' will go on display in our 'Treasures of the National Library of Scotland' exhibition at George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, in September 2023.
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