FIRST FOLIO! The Making of the First Folio

Click here to view The Making of Shakespeare's First Folio in the SPL catalogShould the life of a book require a biography, just like a person might merit a life story? The first omnibus of Shakespeare plays, popularly known as the First Folio, significantly changed the English language and our understanding of being human, and so a biography of this work seems warranted. In The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio, Oxford professor Emma Smith describes the story of how and why the First Folio came to be, conceived and printed in the complicated social and political context of Jacobean England.

Although Shakespeare was beginning to seem a bit quaint by the 1620s, some publishers met a demand for his past favorites by issuing individual plays as quartos (aptly named after their size), the equivalent of modern-day paperbacks. Then, two of Shakespeare’s colleagues, John Heminge and Henry Condell, decided the time was right to collect and publish the works of the Bard in a one comprehensive and elegant edition, a decision that culminated in the First Folio, published seven years after the death of the playwright. Similar to the quarto, the folio is also named as such in reference to its size. This First Folio collection was the second book of plays in this period to be published for an upmarket crowd, coming after Ben Jonson’s Works.

Smith, a professor of Shakespearean theater, offers fascinating glimpses into the origins and the world of the First Folio. The choices made then affect how we think about Shakespeare now, and thus how we verbalize human emotion, history, majesty, and comedy.

For example, Heminge and Condell decided what works got left out. Plays like Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen, written by Shakespeare with collaborators, were excluded. However, other collaborative plays, which may include Macbeth, were included. And speaking of the “Scottish Play,” as it is known, Macbeth and 17 other plays not found elsewhere before were added to the First Folio compilation, among them giants like The Tempest and Julius Caesar. On a lofty plane, Smith thinks about how and why certain plays were selected and allows us to glimpse a cultural world that could easily have been lost.

On a less lofty level, scholarship has now provided the names of many individuals involved in the First Folio’s printing, including Ralph Crane of Shakespeare’s old company, The King’s Men, whose accuracy and style allow readers to identify his work, 400 years on. On the flip side, John Leason, a bumbling typo-prone apprentice, is identified specifically for his sloppy workmanship.

In November 1623, the finished manuscript appeared in the bookshop of Edward Blount as unbound pages, available to be bound there or elsewhere to suit the whim and budget of the buyer. The Shakespeare we know today was saved for “all time,” in the words of his friendly rival Ben Jonson. Smith’s The Making of the First Folio allows us to see the creation happening.

~posted by Carl and Rebecca

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