It feels almost silly stating that William Shakespeare is, without a doubt, the most prominent figure in the English literary canon. Virtually everyone who has ever taken a high school English class has, at some point, read one of his plays, whether it be “Romeo and Juliet” or “Hamlet.” Countless theater groups dedicate themselves solely to performing his works, while film directors never tire of finding new ways of bringing the bard to the movies. Without the publication of one key collection of his works, however, he may never have attained that stature. That text—known today simply as the First Folio—ensured his legend upon its initial publication in 1623.
Members of the Brandeis community received the unique opportunity to view an original copy of the First Folio on Feb. 16 in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall. The event was part of the new Close Looking discussion series, which promotes the exploration of the relationship between the humanities and unique artifacts owned by the university.
A discussion led by Professors Ramie Targoff (ENG) and Adrianne Krstansky (THA) accompanied the viewing. Targoff began by delving into the history of the First Folio’s publication.
John Hemmings and Henry Condell, two members of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, compiled the Folio’s 36 plays and published the volume seven years after Shakespeare’s death.
The two published the book using large pages which were termed folios; the first edition of the (almost) complete works of Shakespeare consequently became popularly known as the First Folio.
At the time, only the most important works—think the Bible or books of law—were published in the folio format.
“This was reserved for important books … [so this publication] elevated it to a level that would have been surprising for many people,” Targoff said.“Plays were [critically] considered the equivalent of screenplays now.”
Half of the Folio’s 36 plays had been previously published in the smaller quarto format. The publishers of these quartos compiled them primarily from different actors’ scripts, so some were heavily corrupted.
In terms of quality, Targoff described them as the “equivalent of cheap paperbacks,” meaning that the folio “represented a big leap forward.”
While many of his plays had been previously published, half of the productions included in the Folio had never seen publication. These include some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays like “Macbeth,” “Julius Caesar” and “Twelfth Night.”
“We would have had less than half of Shakespeare’s plays [without the Folio],” Targoff said, though she noted that the Folio omits four of the plays commonly ascribed to the playwright, including “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.”
While the Folio’s cover page advertises itself as containing “the True Originall Copies” of all 36 plays contained therein, the text often conflicts with the previously published quartos. In many cases, it remains unclear which is the correct text.
“Some of the plays have four, five, six different versions … it was anyone’s guess [which was correct]. We do not have any of Shakespeare’s manuscripts,” said Targoff.
Blatant errors occur within the Folio itself. Its rendition of “Anthony and Cleopatra,” for instance, features no act or scene divisions. Most strikingly, its “Romeo and Juliet” lacks the famous prologue, which was only recovered due to its inclusion in an earlier quarto edition of the play.
Errors aside, the First Folio ultimately solidified Shakespeare’s reputation as a premiere playwright. Contemporary playwrights like Thomas Middleton slipped into comparative obscurity, while the bard’s plays remain part of our cultural consciousness.
Krstansky continued the discussion by describing the way Shakespeare has helped actors past and present in performing his material.
Krstansky spoke at length about the way Shakespeare highlighted moments of great emotion by using verse, reserving prose for less important moments.
“He quite brilliantly puts tons of acting cues in his text so that actors generations after he passed away would know what he was thinking,” Krstansky said.
Krstansky credits his use of iambic pentameter for the way in which his plays continue to connect with audiences.
“Iambic pentameter is the same as your heartbeat, so you carry the iambic pentameter in your body … it appeals to a very visceral, guttural place in people,” said Krstansky.
Prior to the discussion, special collections librarian Sarah Shoemaker spoke of the Folio’s history in the university’s archives.
Its copy of the First Folio—one of 228 still in existence—was donated by Alan Bluestein in 1961, who bought it specifically for the university. Bluestein also donated a second edition of the Folio in 1962, along with a fourth edition in 1963. Both were displayed alongside the First Folio and are themselves immensely valuable; the second edition, for instance, features what is widely believed to be the first published work by poet John Milton.
Though the First Folio was originally bound, the Special Collections Department chose to remove its binding; the book had been bound so tightly that it had damaged its fragile paper.
The university’s copy was then subsequently digitized in 1999 through the Perseus Project at Tufts, allowing everyone access to its contents.
The discussion marked the first of four Close Looking sessions planned for this semester.
Future editions will examine Natalie Frank’s painting “The Czech Bride” and the original manuscript for Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.”