This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays. So called because of its plush page-size (roughly, 8.5 by 13 inches), the book got a sniffy reception in some quarters. Drama was usually deemed too vulgar for such publication, and one bishop complained its pages seemed a better quality than many bibles. None the less, the Folio has since acquired the status of a cultural touchstone, and the 235 copies known to survive are now treated like holy relics.
It’s often been difficult to dispel this reverence and distinguish an actual author behind it. For enabling many readers to accomplish that, we have to thank Sir Stanley Wells, general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare and Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University. His diligent and common-sense scholarship has done much to de-mystify Shakespeare and reposition the plays as working documents. With its text running in parallel columns, a eulogy by Ben Jonson, and Droeshout’s now-iconic portrait of Shakespeare, the Folio was very much a costly gentleman’s volume, to be admired, mused over, or perhaps (as some annotated copies show) used for dainty drawing-room entertainment. Sir Stanley’s achievement has been to point out that the texts were never intended for such refined use. Whatever their poetry, these are public pieces, demanding production. Staging and pacing are essential for their full effect. Shakespeare wrote them, as it were, in rooms always lacking the fourth wall. He was constantly aware of the faces either side of the footlights: a paying audience hungry for romance, comedy, bloodshed, the supernatural, and great historical figures brought to life, but also an onstage cast which had to engage and satisfy that appetite. Any good editor should honour those practical imperatives lodged at the heart of the text, which can only emerge with its rehearsal and delivery: there is always, as Sir Stanley notes in one essay, “the unwritten dimension … the fact that Shakespeare necessarily and consciously left something to hisactors.”In that respect, the plays resemble musical scores. They aren’t simply abstract exercises or conceits, but represent both a basis and a framework for gesture, expression, and carefully gauged response.
Even so, the Folio remains a landmark work. It published 36 plays, half of which existed in no other form. Without it, we might only remember Macbeth or Julius Caesar as titles, like Cardenio, a work written with John Fletcher but now apparently lost for good. Beyond that, however, the text represents an editorial nightmare. Though fondly assembled by his colleagues seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the Folio ignores collaborations like The Two Noble Kinsmen (now an Oxford World’s Classic), imposes its own act and scene divisions, and loses any sequence of composition by grouping the plays into thematic clusters. Inconsistently, the editing also tries to fend off questionable texts which had circulated from stolen prompt-books or audience transcriptions made during Shakespeare’s life-time, but probably introduces personal readings and allows running corrections throughout the print run, so that no two copies of the Folio are precisely alike.
“We celebrate the First Folio, but as Sir Stanley Wells reminds us, the text is both more and less than it might at first appear.”
The Civil Wars and Cromwellian England interrupted any continual tradition of performance, and later productions confused matters even further by employing the Folio and other, more unstable editions as a grab-bag of rhetoric and effect. The lack of any play in Shakespeare’s own hand meant authoritative readings were hard to establish. That absence left his posthumous corpus wide open to error, corrupt adaption, or lazy wishful thinking, and its misattribution to Bacon and others has been a deluded consequence of the chaos.
Sir Stanley has helped to clear up this mess. His objective was an Oxford Shakespeare based on scholarly principles, without any attempt to distort the text. Previous editions, from publishers like Penguin or Four Square, had run into inertia and editorial caprice, or were hampered by outmoded scholarship. Marshalling fresh academic insight, and drawing on the resources of the Oxford English Dictionary, Sir Stanley has clarified the texts and their production. This also informed his huge enthusiasm for Sam Wanamaker’s extraordinary reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, and we all now have a much clearer view of Elizabethan stage-craft, including the management of ghosts, murder, and mutilation—in Northrop Frye’s memorable phrase, “the problem of getting all this meat off the stage.” Through close analysis and re-enactment, a modern public has been brought closer than ever to Shakespeare’s original intentions, and to the playwright’s life. Anyone interested in that should consult Sir Stanley’s excellent Very Short Introduction on the subject.
So, we celebrate the First Folio, but as Sir Stanley Wells reminds us, the text is both more and less than it might at first appear. Our reception of it, as readers and audiences, continues to evolve with each re-interpretation. There is, in the end, no final, definitive Shakespeare.
Featured image: “Shakspeare from the First Folio Edition”, John Swaine (1775–1860), Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund (public domain)
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