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Recalling the importance of First Folio as new Shakespeare exhibition opens in Stratford

By Professor Charlotte Scott, Director of Knowledge and Engagement at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

ALL the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players (As You Like It). You taught me language and my profit on’t is I know how to curse (The Tempest). Does any of that sound familiar? Well, it wouldn’t if, 400 years ago, Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues hadn’t put together Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, or as it is also known, the First Folio.

Published in November 1623, this monumental book at more than 900 pages, including dedicatory verses, list of actors and a whole new genre called ‘histories’, also included 18 previously unpublished plays, such as Macbeth, The Tempest and Twelfth Night, to name only a few and it set Shakespeare, front and centre, as the most significant playwright of his generation. Described by his friends as ‘a happy imitator of nature’ and a ‘most gentle expresser of it’, this posthumous project was a testimony to the ‘soul of the age’, as fellow writer, Ben Jonson, called him.

Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Photo: SBT
Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Photo: SBT

No other collected plays had been in print on this scale and at this cost. Seven years after his death, Shakespeare is lovingly remembered and admired by those who knew and worked with him as the ‘sweet swan of Avon’, the writer who never blotted a line and didn’t know much Latin and Greek, but nevertheless, a peerless and unprecedented author of something magical: stories, plays, texts, and characters that would stand the test of time and the changing tastes of history.

In this monumental publication, the stage reaches the page and the traces of those who worked, wrote and acted with Shakespeare are forever fixed in our imaginations.

A skilled and time consuming process, the London print shop of William Jaggard and his son Issac, required each word to be set, letter by letter, into ‘sorts’, from its case, made into a solid ‘forme’, inked and dried onto the folio page, which was folded in half to make two pages on each side.

Alongside the actors and friends who put this book together, there are many others involved. The bookseller, Edward Blount, the transcriber Ralph Crane, the many compositors who set the type, as well as the permissions from previously published plays, like James Smithweeke, who owned the rights to Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, for example. There are many names in this book, like those mentioned here, but there are also other names, vital to the world of drama, with whom Shakespeare collaborated who do not appear in the Folio. Thomas Middleton, for example, was a key figure in the text of Macbeth, nor does it include George Peele’s hand in Titus Andronicus.

There are many striking things about this book: its size, its weight, its contents, but also it is the first text of its kind to put the author as the main attraction.

Opening the first page, on the left is a dedicatory verse ‘to the reader’ praising ‘gentle Shakespeare’, encouraging us to ‘look not on his picture, but his book’, which is all very well, but there on the opposite page is a large image of the author, staring boldly out at us – receding hairline, moustache, large ruff, and a quizzical, if serious, look. Shakespeare, it would seem, sells.

What follows are five dedicatory poems, a ‘catalogue’ or contents page dividing the plays into genres, and a list of principle actors, including Shakespeare.

Before we even turn to the first play, notably his last singled authored play, The Tempest, we have 18 pages of encouragement, reflection, testimony and description, informing us that even though ‘gentle Shakespeare’ is the main attraction, there are a great many others involved in this book and who have travelled alongside the author for the last two decades. Dedicated ‘the great variety of readers’, Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histoires and Tragedies’, is a testimony to collaboration and friendship, a labour of love, those who have taken ‘the office of their care and pain to have collected and published’ him so that we ‘can read him, therefore, again and again’.

17th Century notebook from one of Shakespeare's first big fans to be displayed in the Folio 400 exhibition. Copyright SBT. (63125340)
17th Century notebook from one of Shakespeare's first big fans to be displayed in the Folio 400 exhibition. Copyright SBT. (63125340)

The exhibition at Shakespeare’s New Place is dedicated to ‘The Great Variety of Readers’ and puts this story on display, so that you can discover the legacies of the will, the hand of the writer, the process of print and the book that would contribute more to English language and literature than any other single volume.

The exhibition allows visitors to explore one of the first documented readers of the Folio, including his tiny notebook and commentary on the words and phrases he liked.

There is also a chance to make your mark and add your thoughts and name to the great variety of readers, with a seal impression from the WS signet ring or marking your best bits in a facsimile copy of the folio.

The exhibition is an affectionate and authoritative celebration of the plays of Shakespeare and the many who have kept them alive.

Prof Charlotte Scott. (63185517)
Prof Charlotte Scott. (63185517)

A Great Variety of Readers – 400 Years of Shakespeare’s First Folio opens on Saturday, 25th March, at Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford. Access to the exhibition is included in admission tickets to Shakespeare’s New Place, starting from £13 for adults and £6.50 for children. Admission is also included in the Shakespeare’s Story ticket, which grants access to all the other Shakespeare family homes, including Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

For more information on the exhibition and the wider Shakespeare’s First Folio at 400 celebrations, visit www.shakespeare.org.uk.

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