Whatever you do, buy

Michael Dobson

  • The Shakespeare First Folio: The History of the Book Vol. I: An Account of the First Folio Based on Its Sales and Prices, 1623-2000 by Anthony James West
    Oxford, 215 pp, £70.00, April 2001, ISBN 0 19 818769 6

Collectors’ fantasy Christmas present it may have become, but Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was a series of headaches before it was anything else. Despite the confidently comprehensive title they gave it, the editors of the First Folio, John Heminges and Henry Condell, were defeated by the task of assembling all of their late colleague’s plays: we will never know how many nights’ sleep they lost over their failure to secure a copy of Love’s Labour’s Won, written before 1598 and printed in quarto before 1603, nor what arguments led to the exclusion not just of all Shakespeare’s poems and the single scene he wrote for Sir Thomas More but of three late collaborative plays, Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio. (The sorry consequences are clear enough, however: namely, the survival of Pericles only in an abominably printed and unreliable quarto and the permanent loss of both Love’s Labour’s Won and Cardenio.) Of the plays they were able to track down, not all reached the printers on time – Troilus and Cressida came too late even to be listed on the contents page – and many gave both publishers and typesetters considerable trouble. Some of the copy consisted of printed texts of plays that had already been published individually, causing all sorts of copyright problems, and many of these had been covered in intricate marginal scribblings and interleavings and strikings-out to bring them up to date with subsequent revisions (not all of them authorial), annotations which in some instances baffled the compositors. Of the plays supplied in manuscript, some of them in Shakespeare’s own handwriting, five or six seem to have been sufficiently difficult to decipher for the publishers to commission the professional scribe Ralph Crane to prepare fresh transcripts, and even these were sometimes misread during typesetting. Judging from this, from Shakespeare’s signatures on legal documents, and from the few holograph pages we have of his scriptwriting (part of his contribution to Sir Thomas More), the claim in Heminges and Condell’s prefatory epistle that Shakespeare’s ‘mind and hand went together, and what he thought he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers’ seems to have been merely conventionally figurative praise of the author’s facility rather than a literal description of his foul papers.

Nor did Heminges and Condell’s difficulties end with the provision of usable and legible copies of Shakespeare’s scripts. There were tricky decisions to be made, about the order in which the plays should appear, for example. Foregrounding those which hadn’t been printed before was clearly a priority (thus the comedies section starts with The Tempest and the tragedies with Coriolanus), but the editors’ decision to classify the whole canon by genre created problems as well as solving them. Their strategy of grouping all the plays about English history, whether comic or tragic in structure, and placing them in chronological order by subject-matter, all neatly titled after the name of the appropriate reigning monarch, made Shakespeare’s contributions to the development of the chronicle play look a lot tidier than might otherwise have been the case. (The plays their author had known as The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, Richard Duke of York and All Is True, for example, reappeared as, respectively, Henry VI Parts 2 and 3 and Henry VIII.) Pre-Christian British kings, however, though just as solemnly vouched for by Holinshed’s Chronicles, weren’t seen to count as historical: the play originally printed as The History of King Lear had to be reclassified as a tragedy (just as the erstwhile tragedies of Richard II and Richard III became histories), and was joined by Cymbeline, despite that play’s competing affinities with history and with comedy. Other potential anomalies abounded: Troilus, at one time scheduled for inclusion in the middle of the tragedies, and described both as a comedy and as a history in its quarto incarnation, finally wound up adrift between the tragedies and the histories.

The arrangement of the plays aside, there was the picture on the title page to sort out. It was commissioned from a mediocre Flemish engraver called Martin Droeshout, who worked either from a now-lost portrait painted during the author’s lifetime (perhaps by Richard Burbage), or perhaps just from a proto-identikit sketch prepared by his surviving colleagues (the engraving is bad enough to support either hypothesis). There were also commendatory poems to solicit and obtain, from the likes of the notoriously touchy and unco-operative Ben Jonson, who had to be prevailed on to compose a little eulogy about how marvellously good a likeness of Shakespeare was provided by the dubious engraving. There were also two completely contradictory dedications to write, one assuring the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery that the book owed its existence entirely to their feudal patronage, and the other telling ‘the Great Variety of Readers’ that it was a commercial venture, dependent solely on their purses: ‘read and censure . . . but buy it first . . . whatever you do, buy.’

By the time they got to the stage of composing this famous blurb, Heminges and Condell, actors with no previous experience of publishing, must have learned more than they had ever wanted to know about the economics of the book business. At 907 pages, the Folio’s production had had to be underwritten by a syndicate of hitherto rival publishers, specially assembled for the project, and what with all the last-minute complications with the copy and the sheer scale of the volume (together with some fiddly details, such as the woodcut ornaments placed at the beginnings and ends of plays), the book’s preparation took up valuable labour and resources in the workshops of William and Isaac Jaggard for the best part of two years. It was first advertised in the catalogue of the Frankfurt Book Fair as due out in mid-1622, but the title page in the end bore the date 1623, and the final copies weren’t completed until early 1624. Taking into account all the print-shop labour and the ink and paper used, each copy must have cost about 6s. 8d. to produce, and they were marked up to a London retail price of somewhere between 15s. (unbound) and £1 (in plain calf). These figures might have been greater had the Jaggards felt the market would stand them: as it was, they economised as far as they could, employing at least one inept apprentice among the compositors (responsible, among other things, for typesetting Macbeth, with dismaying results), and choosing not to waste any folio sheets on which they had noticed errors during printing – they corrected as they went along, but used the misprinted pages anyway.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in