The First Folio: what is left out

Guest blogger, Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, writes…

Without the First Folio we would not have almost twenty plays by Shakespeare. The Tempest, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, and many more plays, had not been printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime and are available to us only because of the Folio, and the initiative and ambition of its facilitators John Heminge and Henry Condell. It might seem churlish, then, to comment on what is left out – but it also tells us something about the preferences of the folio-makers, the early modern printing trade, and Shakespeare’s reputation in his lifetime. The first folio does not include Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, Sir Thomas More and Pericles (added in the third folio); these are all now thought to be at least partially by Shakespeare. But more striking than this is the omission of Shakespeare’s poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which were all printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and under his name.

Why was this? One argument is that the Folio is a work composed by actors not poets. Heminge and Condell had known and worked with Shakespeare, and saw him – and wanted the public to see him – as a man of the theatre. But the reason is probably less ideological and more financial. The texts of those plays which had not been published were owned by the group of actors who produced the Folio. The poems, however, had already been published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the right to print them passed hands several times in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. At the time of the Folio’s creation, the right to print them was owned by Roger Jackson and John Parker (Venus and Adonis and Lucrece), and Thomas Thorpe for Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Before the publication of the folio, and especially in the earlier phase of his career in the 1590s, Shakespeare was more famous for his poetry than his drama, and especially for the titillating classical poem, Venus and Adonis (1593). Instead of praising the characters, plots and action of his drama, early commentators spoke of Shakespeare’s poetic style. In 1598, Francis Meres famously referred to Shakespeare as “mellifluous and honey-tongued … witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets”. John Milton may have been picking up on such praise, his poem in the Folio admires “sweetest Shakespeare fancies childe”. Michael Schoenfeldt has said that “Shakespeare’s greatest publishing success in his lifetime was Venus and Adonis”.

In 1599 the printer William Jaggard cashed in on the success of Shakespeare’s poems by producing a collection which claimed to be by Shakespeare: The Passionate Pilgrim. Jaggard marketed this collection of largely non-Shakespearean verse on the basis of its Shakespearean style, and he included poems that are about Venus and Adonis and also poems in the Venus and Adonis stanza, suggesting the popularity and ubiquity of Shakespeare’s first printed poem and the public appetite for more of the same.

During his lifetime, Shakespeare was a print poet in a way that he was not a print dramatist. There is an irony that the omission of the narrative poems from the Folio was due to their popularity, but it has contributed to them becoming the least popular of all Shakespeare’s works– a trend that is only now being reversed.

Elizabeth Scott-Baumann
University of Leicester