How many First Folios do we need?

Emma Smith, Hertford College, University of Oxford, writes…

First Folios are in the news again. Senate House Library at the University of London is consulting on whether to sell a collection of the four Shakespeare Folios.

There has been a general outcry from scholars, alumni and library staff – and one of the points of contention has been Senate House’s description of these books as “essentially duplicates”.

Now it is true that there are over two hundred extant copies of the First Folio (we don’t know what the initial print run was, but estimates vary between around 700 and 1200). But, as many bibliographers have been keen to point out, none of these can be called a duplicate, in part because of variations deriving from the printing press, and also because of the way that the individual history, the life experiences of each volume, are recorded in its copy-specific features.

The Bodleian has two copies of the First Folio, and one has been digitized, following a public appeal. We can use this copy to identify some of its unique features – and imagine their equivalents in Senate House’s Stirling copies.

1. Binding

One of the important things about the Bodleian First Folio is that it is in its original binding. Look at the first four images which show the calfskin binding – done by the Oxford binder William Wildgoose early in 1624. You can see the damage on it, including the rip that marks where the chain which kept it secure in the library was removed (when it left the library, perhaps because it was considered a “duplicate”). You can also see the use of scrap paper to stiffen the paste-down.

2. Manuscript additions

Different readers annotate their books in different ways, and Shakespeare’s First Folio is no exception. Meisei University owns a heavily annotated copy which shows an early reader summarizing plot and speeches as he worked through the volume; many copies of the Folio carry doodles, signatures, corrections, annotations, underlinings, etc., which are all clues to readers’ engagement with the text. On image 4 of the Bodleian’s First Folio you can see a manuscript version of a missing leaf (the poem ‘To the Reader’ by Ben Jonson that is opposite the titlepage, which you can see in one of the Folger’s copies). Someone has also added another poem we haven’t been able to trace beyond this copy, so it may be that it represents an amateur addition to the work.

3. Wear and tear

Book conservators and librarians often seem as if they would really like books to be pristine, unsullied by readers. But what’s so fascinating about our copy is that it shows a good deal of wear and tear. You’ll see as you turn the digital pages that corners are often knocked off, that there are tears in the pages, and sometimes that passages are missing or obscured. These may give us some insight into which plays have been most eagerly read during the life of the book.

4. Stop-press corrections

Like most printed books of this period, the First Folio was corrected, if at all, while the sheets were being printed, and thus bound copies of a work often contain different combinations of corrected and uncorrected states. Our Folio, for instance, has an error in the stage direction when Lear dies at the very end of King Lear. You can see that it has been corrected in the Folger copy.

So, how many First Folios do we need? As many as possible, because we’ve only just begun to give this most influential of books this kind of copy-specific attention, and to think about printed books from this period as unique transmitters – not so much from author to reader, but from reader to reader, through the centuries.

Emma Smith
Hertford College, University of Oxford