We owe these pleasures in part to the First Folio, a fat collection of Shakespeare’s plays, compiled in 1623, seven years after his death.
As Elizabeth James, senior librarian at the National Art Library in London, and Harriet Reed, contemporary performance curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum point out in the show-and-tell above, 18 previously-unpublished plays would have sunk into oblivion had they not been truffled up and preserved here by John Heminge and Henry Condell, listed in the Folio as among the ‘Principall Actors’ of his work.
Hemings and Condell’s desire to create an accurate compendium of Shakespeare’s work for posterity led them to scour prompt books, authorial fair copy, and working drafts referred to as “foul papers” – a term rife for revival, in our opinion – for the texts of the unpublished works.
Their labors yielded some 750 copies of a luxurious, high-priced volume, which positioned Shakespeare as someone of such consequence, his words were to be accorded the same reverence as that of classical authors’.
They categorized the plays as comedies, tragedies, or histories, forever cementing our conceptions of the individual works.
The now familiar portrait of the author also contributed to the perceived weightiness of the tome.
Of the 230-some First Folios that survive, the bulk are in library or university collections – with the Folger Shakespeare Library, Tokyo’s Meisei University, the New York Public Library, the British Library the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, the University of Texas at Austin and Princeton among those holding multiple copies.
Some retain the handwritten annotations of their original owners, a meticulous record of plays seen or read. How many would you be able to check off as something read or seen?
All’s Well That Ends Well,
Antony and Cleopatra
As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors
Henry VI, Part 1
Measure for Measure
The Taming of the Shrew
Timon of Athens
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Winter’s Tale.
– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.