My Relevant Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Celia Smith, writes…

November 2008 is a significant date for me for two reasons: it was the first time I sought literary theory outside the classroom, and the first time I saw a Shakespeare play that was not in the rotation of classics with which I was familiar. The literary comment was a defence of T.S. Eliot’s anti-semitism by Jeanette Winterson.  The play was Tim Caroll’s 2008 The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Angus Wright as Shylock. I remember the two together because both were moments that offered ambivalent representations of the Jewish faith; something which interests me.

The set production of Merchant stood out to me in a way I hadn’t previously considered a Shakespearean performance. The floors, walls and furniture props took on hues of a musty, heat-burnt red – it reminded me of the Mediterranean marketplace setting and the gory blood money theme.  The experience marked a departure from the way I had watched Shakespeare plays as a child. When I was at school I had been used to uncritically sitting through versions of the plays you might typically be taken to see at that age (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet). I think the teachers hoped the trips would sow a seed of intellectual curiosity about the writer’s more obscure gold. Yet it’s a mark of my irrepressible juvenilia that plays like Henry VIII or The Winter’s Tale or Pericles will always exist for me outside the well-established set of Shakespeare texts that are – as they are for so many – imprinted permanently on my adolescent brain. It’s the language from the grand plays that have stayed with me all these years; the cadences of the lines that I have hung my heart on year after years of growing up.

I remember at university, the finalists in the years above me used Antony and Cleopatra and Henry V as they slogged through their exams. One girl wrote on Facebook as she approached the first night of her exams: “the bright day is done / And we are for the dark”. I remember when they were nearly done too because she wrote: “once more unto the breach dear friends!” Those lines returned to me as spurs of encouragement by the time I was doing my own finals. At that time I was comforted by the melodrama I could call on. When I felt like a misery-guts and I could see younger students still having fun, I would grumble: “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth”. I would later eventually drop off after a sleepless night with grouchy resolve: “put out the light, and then put out the light”.

Nowadays working in my graduate job, I still find Shakespeare quotations lift my spirits. After a month working for Nightingale House (a Jewish care home for the elderly), and after a month waiting for social care reforms to come from the House of Commons, I was suddenly struck by how close the company’s talk of quality of care was making me think of Merchant’s speech on quality of mercy.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest:

The Merchant of Venice, IV, i

In the light of the challenging future that faces the elderly community in Britain today, I feel that Shakespeare writes about care (or rather mercy) with a moral fibre that would make me gibber with guilt were I in Government. And that reminder of Merchant brings me back to that date of November 2008, when I was first exploring the world of literary theory. I came across this apologia for poetry in Winterson’s feature in The Guardian. Her argument for the relevance of T.S. Eliot is exactly how I feel about the relevance of Shakespeare:

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

 

Celia Smith

Shakespeare on Radio

We are delighted to share a guest post from a former Chief Producer Radio Drama at the BBC, Martin Jenkins, who writes…

Budget and time restraints present real challenges for radio directors who have to rehearse and record some 30 minutes of a Shakespeare play during each studio day.  Pre-preparation is vital.  Various versions of the text will be studied.  Some additional verse may be required so that listeners know where a scene is set and who is speaking. I remember when I was directing Peggy Ashcroft as Queen Margaret in 1977 (a role she had first played with the RSC in 1963) she came to a handful of lines she didn’t recognise. “I wonder why John [Barton] cut these out – they’re rather good.”  I opted to keep quiet.

Casting is crucial.  In all radio drama, it is essential to utilize a wide range of voices and accents so listeners can distinguish between the various characters.  The director’s nightmare is to realise at the readthrough that Hamlet and Horatio sound identical.

Owing to the limited rehearsal/recording time, BBC Radio can often assemble stunning casts, all of whom enter into the spirit of the recording with the “big names” also taking part in crowd scenes with great gusto.

With such limited rehearsal time, a director needs to create an open working environment during which ideas are discussed and actors brought to performance pitch in a remarkably short space of time. Many clearly relish this immediacy and sense of “danger”.  At the same time, the director is shaping the emotional course of the scene whilst also carefully blocking the action. Radio is far from a static medium. Actors rarely, if ever, stand around microphones, reading.  A great deal of physical energy and movement is required and it is my privilege to have witnessed some truly remarkable performances in radio studios.

Throughout the studio sessions, I strive to ensure the language has a freshness and vitality, hopefully sounding as if it is being spoken for the first time. During actual recordings, I am in the cubicle listening intently to the journey of the play, as well as to the journey of each of the characters. I have to be sure that character and plot development are clear to the listener and, most importantly, that they are being drawn into Shakespeare’s world: “On your imaginary forces work.” (Henry V, I, Prologue)

Shakespeare can work brilliantly on radio. With no visual distractions, the listener has a unique relationship with the verse. They can eavesdrop, especially during soliloquies. They can experience characters thinking aloud and sharing their innermost thoughts.  Because of this closeness, a mis-stressed word or misplaced inflection will jar and hinder understanding of the character’s thought processes.  Sometimes in the theatre, one feels performances have “settled” and that lines are being “recited” rather than “thought”.  Recited lines on radio work against audience involvement.

Throughout a recording, my role is to focus on listening, not watching, the actors. If something doesn’t work then my notes have to be (hopefully) clear and concise.  When it does work – when you hear actors in total harmony with the sense, pitch and energy of the language – everything makes sense and the lines feel as fresh as the day they were written.

Martin Jenkins
Former BBC Chief Producer Radio Drama; founding Artistic Director of the Liverpool Everyman; former assistant director and actor with the RSC

Conservation Diary — Day 10

Nicole Gilroy writes…

Nicole Gilroy shows the First Folio to visitors Francesca Heaney, Steve Rodgers, Richard McCabe and Tim Kirtley

Nicole Gilroy shows the First Folio to visitors Francesca Heaney, Steve Rodgers, Richard McCabe and Tim Kirtley

The two weeks have flown by, and, fortified by a good breakfast at Mick’s Café, the team started on the final day of the stabilization work. We reviewed the work that has been done and we are happy that the splints and joint support are functioning as we intended.

The Maltby's box

The Maltby’s box

Measurements of the book were taken so that a new tailor-made box can be ordered for it: suitable housing is crucial to the preservation of rare books, and though the First Folio has a rather fine presentation box, made for it by the Oxford firm Maltby’s on its return to the library, the box is damaged and is no longer protecting the book as well as we would like.

A custom-made box covered in hard-wearing linen cloth will be constructed for the book, and in true Bodleian style the old box, in its own card box, will be retained alongside it on the shelf!

 
 

Emma Smith and The Guardian's Maev Kennedy

Emma Smith and The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy

We have had some fantastic responses to the project from the media, with journalists from the local news as well as The Guardian and BBC Radio 4 visiting to see our work. The team were delighted to host a visit from Vanessa Redgrave who has given her enthusiastic and heartfelt support to the project. This has made the workshop a busy place over the last two weeks, and we have greatly enjoyed sharing our work with these and many other visitors.

Andrew Honey and The Guardian's Frantzesco Kangaris

Andrew Honey and The Guardian’s Frantzesco Kangaris

Next week the project moves on to the next exciting phase: the digitization itself. The work of the Conservation team is not over, as we will be working closely with our specialist photographers to ensure the safety of the book while getting the best possible images.

Our brief time with this very special book has sparked our interest in many areas: the binding methods and techniques, the paper quality, the material used for repair patches and much more. We look forward to seeing the plays online when the work is complete, and will be following up the threads of evidence that we have been able to pick up during our work.

I hope these notes have been interesting and have given a glimpse of the sort of work that goes on in the Conservation workshop: a combination of history, archaeology, technical analysis, photography, and an awful lot of thinking and talking. Only when we have done all of that do we pick up our brushes and spatulas and carry out the repair.

Sabina Pugh, Julie Sommerfeldt, Arthur Green, Vanessa Redgrave, Andrew Honey, Nicole Gilroy and Thelma Holt

Sabina Pugh, Julie Sommerfeldt, Arthur Green, Vanessa Redgrave, Andrew Honey, Nicole Gilroy and Thelma Holt

De-editing Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Gerald Baker, writes…

I can no longer see William Shakespeare straight, nor feel him any longer on the bone or in the blood. By which I mean that over years (50 last month since I had my first Complete Works) of watching, reading, performing in the plays, and of being in a liberal humanist education (and still today working through a reading list that started when I was 18).

I have been told so many different versions or ideas that I often cannot disentangle my perception or understanding of a scene, or speech, or play, from other people’s reactions. Where I can do so, I find myself querying whether it’s my imagination/sensitivity at fault or merely different.

Case in point: Twelfth Night – for many people their favourite comedy, evoking terms like ‘bittersweet’ or ‘Mozartian’ – for me almost a total blind-spot; toneless, moodless, recycling bits he did better elsewhere (though I very much like the pieces often grouped with it, such as As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing). I know this is a discrepancy, and because I love the companion pieces so much I’m not much bothered about it being a failure or deficiency in me, but I go on giving Twelfth Night chances, attempting to get more from it that I know I can’t find.

And so with others: Coriolanus is firmly on the side of the people, exposing the flaws of the wealthy and individualistic ruling faction; Coriolanus has a proper scorn of the unwashed mob and endorses the virtues and strong leadership of its heroic general. It can’t be both (though it demonstrably is as a script) because Shakespeare the man can’t have been both – everything we know, what little everything there is, tends to place him on the side of the rulers against the people. Therefore the two-sidedness, the multi-facetedness, is a product or function not of Shakespeare’s myriad-mindedness, but of a variety of viewpoints and experiences of the play’s consumers and agents.

Othello is a terrible and poetic tragedy of a noble soul: no, actually, it’s a woman strangled in her marital bed by her bombastic and selfish, brutish husband. Desdemona is the one who undergoes the bloody tragedy, but the script manipulates you to forget or ignore this and foregrounds and privileges the killer. I know this, and nowadays this would not be reckoned a perverse interpretation, but all the time I watch, or read, or think of, Othello, I have this undertow pulling me back of Wilson Knight on “The Othello Music”, of images and reviews of noble Moors and “motiveless malignancy”.

And don’t get me started on Hamlet, and the idealizations and canonizations of the Prince as archetypal modern man, or the “claustrophobia” of Elsinore…

It’s not a universal feeling, and there are still parts of Shakespeare’s work that get to me very directly: the Macbeths immediately after killing Duncan, the moodshift of Marcade’s eleventh-hour irruption (Love’s Labour’s Lost), Lear’s and Timon’s denunciations of how their worlds are organized (King Lear and Timon of Athens), the gracefulness and good humour of As You Like It, the tumbling headlong spillage of images in the language of Antony and Cleopatra. But much doesn’t reach me anymore, and I feel tired, and it feels tired, when we meet.

The delights of Shakespeare are varied and multitudinous, but they are not infinite and he is not comprehensive. Let me suggest that mothers and daughters would not find him very engaged with their interrelated concerns.

Where I am happiest at the moment, and for many years past, with Shakespeare, is on the margins, the bits where there are fewer preconceptions to prejudice or handcuff me: parts of Timon of Athens fascinate me, and I have a disproportionate interest in The Two Noble Kinsmen.

I remember my first postgraduate reading of the May Day scene in Sir Thomas More and being blown away by a new bit of Shakespeare. And as I wrote before, I am trying to make all of this new by going back to facsimiles or lightly edited editions where I can see the scripts unmediated, or much less mediated, at least. And Hamlet makes more sense when you find there’s a case for him being only 18, and one of the greatest but least satisfactory scenes in King Lear (III, vi) is more intelligible when you can see that what we know is in fact a conflation of two quite different scenes in the first two editions of the play.

Scholars and academics have been moving on the margins and “de-editing” Shakespeare for a couple of decades now, at least, but not many of us outside universities have tried scraping the varnish off, I think.

It’s almost as if that whole paramountcy that the First Folio established by preserving 50% of the plays from extinction, and distinguishing Shakespeare by collecting a writer’s plays for the first time,* has actually also made it possible to separate him from his contemporaries, his co-workers and his peers.

What I’m trying to say is that the more I can break Shakespeare down in my head and see him in the same fragmented and partial way we perforce do his fellows, the more I have a direct and personal, excited and engaged, response to the work.

 

*I know the Folio of Ben Jonson’s work came first, but it wasn’t just plays, and more importantly he collected his work himself, whereas other people did it for Shakespeare.

 Gerald Baker

Some Lines from King John

Guest blogger, Jonathan Blaney, writes…

I was interested to hear that King John is, from the evidence of wear, the least read of the plays in the Bodleian’s copy of the First Folio. For me, it contains the most touching lines in all of Shakespeare’s writing. When Constance is separated from her son, Arthur, she says:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

King John, III, iii. 93-7

The play is often dated to 1596. The Arden edition, edited by Honigmann, remarks tersely of this passage: “Some edd. think Shakespeare remembers the death of his son Hamnet, ob. 1596.”

It’s a benefit of not being a Shakespeare scholar to be able to say, “of course he’s remembering Hamnet”. The writing in this part of the play, quite drab by Shakespeare’s standards, briefly takes wing. It’s incongruous and deeply felt. As long as the dating is correct, then of course it’s about Hamnet.

The curious thing is that at this point in the play Arthur is not dead. It seems to me that very often in Shakespeare death is attended by some kind of misprision: Lear thinks Cordelia is alive but she is dead; Romeo thinks Juliet is dead but she is alive. And death frequently strikes blindly, as though through an arras: Hamlet thinks he is killing Claudius but he’s killing Polonius; Claudius thinks he is killing Hamlet but he’s killing Gertrude. Most insistently, Shakespeare works away obsessively at the idea that characters thought to be dead are, in various ways, redeemed from death and restored by drama: Imogen, Ferdinand, Perdita and Marina are just the most explicit examples, as if in the late plays Shakespeare allowed himself licence to write about what interested him most.

I cannot help noticing that after the restoration of the nuclear family in The Winter’s Tale one character is not brought back to the life of Leontes: his son Mamillius, who was perhaps the age of Arthur and of Hamnet.

It may be that I am just partial to such scenes: nothing in Henry V stays in my mind except the death of Falstaff. Or it may be that, as the poet (and wonderful Shakespeare translator) Paul Celan wrote shortly before his own death, “when is great poetry not about last things?”

Jonathan Blaney

Three Musings on Early Shakespearean Printing

Guest blogger William Poole writes…

I visited the conservators working on the First Folio out at Osney Mead with a small group of interested observers. How fascinating to see this work as it is actually being carried out!

The visit set me thinking about a few different issues concerning the study of early printed Shakespeare and its reception.

1.

The First Folio of 1623 is a justly celebrated book. But it may help us if we look at the Folio not as a lone bibliographical pioneer, the first folio-format book to contain solely plays in English, but as the culmination of a series of London experiments in folio literary publishing.

An excellent means of doing this has been provided by a sometime curator at the Folger Library, Steven K. Galbraith, in his essay ‘English Literary Folios 1593-1623: studying shifts in format’, in John N. King, ed., Tudor Books and Readers (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), chapter 3.

Galbraith is interested in trying to unpick what he terms “firstfoliocentricity”. In order to do this, he proposed a rough taxonomy of literary folios into three types. First there are ‘folios of economy’ (where paper is actually saved by printing in folio rather than any smaller format); then there are ‘folios of luxury’ (where attractiveness supersedes thrift); and finally there are ‘folios of necessity’ (where the amount of text to be set is so great that folio is the only one-volume option).

Now Shakespeare’s First Folio might actually be seen as the fifth in a series of experiments in literary folio publication stretching from the late Elizabethan to the late Jacobean periods. To summarize Galbraith: first came Sir Philip Sidney’s posthumous Arcadia … with Sundry New Additions (1598). This is an economical folio, where the jump from quarto to folio actually made better business sense. Next is Samuel Daniel’s The Works of Samuel Daniel (1601) – note the title, so Ben Jonson was not the first writer to use this grand appellation for such a venture – another example of a text ‘promoting’ from quarto to folio. And this, as Galbraith observes, is a folio of luxury. Third, Spenser’s posthumous Works (1611) is a folio of economy and necessity, as it is both very frugal in its use of paper and large enough in terms of material for folio format to be the only practicable means of publication – so some categories of folio can be combined. Ben Jonson’s Workes (1616) is probably the most famous of all these pre-Shakespearean literary folios, but we can see now that Jonson’s folio too is the culmination of a late Elizabethan tradition; and it is a folio of luxury, replete with ‘paratextual’ embellishments of some sophistication and cost.

Finally, there is Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623). This, Galbraith shows, is clearly a folio of necessity and of economy. It contains thirty-six plays, a number far in excess of any previous literary folio containing plays. Folio was the only choice here, unless it was to be sold as a set of quarto volumes, not at all the impression its publishers wished to give. It is economically printed, with as little wasted space as possible – if a play ends on a recto, for instance, the next one starts on the verso. So when we talk about “luxury” folios we should perhaps think carefully before immediately applying that label to Shakespeare’s First Folio, as if “luxury” and “folio” are inseparable terms. Not, of course, that this was in any sense a cheap book to buy – rather the reverse. But purely in terms of the economics and even the aesthetics of printing, it is not the foremost example of a luxury literary folio – that title is best shared by Daniel’s and Jonson’s folios.

2.

Bodleian Library lost its First Folio in the Restoration – it will have been sold among one of the many duplicate sales the Bodleian commenced in the 1660s. By the time of the librarian Hudson, indeed, what is now the Upper Reading Room contained tables of Bodleian duplicates on sale to academic tourists – there will be many books in libraries around the world with Bodleian shelfmarks that were purchased at such sales. The First Folio was sold on the second-hand market to an unknown buyer, and at that point it ceased to be in institutional hands until repurchased by the library. It is not annotated, as Bodleian readers (and it must be remembered that only graduates were permitted to read in the library in this period) were banned from annotating books, as they still are. But the book shows significant signs of wear, and it is likely that most of this wear reflects the attentions of readers in the first four decades of its existence, as a highly popular literary work will receive much more attention in a library frequented by in theory many hundreds of readers than it will at the hands of a sole owner.

This does raise an interesting question unrelated to the history of the Bodleian’s First Folio, but crucial to the understanding of the reading of the Folio in the Bodleian, and I have not encountered any discussion of this aspect of the history of that text in Oxford. For when the Bodleian sold its First Folio, it did so because it had acquired a subsequent edition – and this edition will have shouldered all the attentions formerly lavished upon its parent. Therefore, one interesting possibility for future research on the Bodleian’s Shakespeare collection would be to examine second, third, and fourth folios of known early provenance, and to ask them the questions about readership and use we usually reserve for the more famous, but long absent, First Folio. We might start with the Folios in the “Arch” series and ascertain which of them have secure early provenances. The Bodleian copy of the Second Folio (1632) is at Arch. G c.9; the copy of the Third Folio (1664) is at Arch. G c.11; and the Fourth Folio (1685) is at Arch. G c.13.

And we should not forget that there are at least a dozen copies of the second, third, and fourth folios in college libraries too. Perhaps some kind of “show-and-tell” folio party should be organized?

3.

Something of the popularity of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays as printed texts, in both early and more recent editions, in Restoration Oxford, can be gleaned from an extraordinary list amongst the papers of Anthony Wood. Here one will find details on many Shakespeare texts for sale, including a folio, I think the fourth if I remember correctly – Wood itemizes its contents too. This is Wood’s 1684 extensive list of plays for sale in Oxford from the shop of Nicholas Coxe, Manciple of St Edmund Hall. (Coxe or Cox, incidentally, also sold manuscripts of plays, and had published on the Oxford press in 1680 a pioneering catalogue of all plays published to that date.) This wonderful document, now part of MS Wood E 4, and listing hundreds of plays, is excellent evidence of literary taste in Oxford in the 1680s in playtexts. It is fascinating to note the presence in this list not only of very early as well as very recent editions of Shakespeare quartos, but also the problems of attribution facing the reader of playtexts, who by the 1680s was confronted with many texts attributed to Shakespeare that are clearly not by him.

William Poole
Fellow in English and Fellow Librarian
New College, University of Oxford

A Heroic King Lear

Guest blogger, Perry Mills writes…

In 1993 Adrian Noble directed King Lear for the RSC for the second time. I had seen his previous assault on the play in 1982, a production which contained a truly memorable performance by Antony Sher as the Fool. Apparently Harley Granville-Barker suggested to John Gielgud as he prepared to play the title role on one occasion, “Get yourself a light Cordelia.” Perhaps Michael Gambon would advise Lears designate, “Get yourself a mediocre Fool” since most reviewers seemed to focus on Sher, which was understandable.

Noble certainly appeared to have taken similar advice 11 years later; this time the spotlight was well and truly on the throne – and those words are not a cliché.

I had seen King Lear several times by then and adored the play, but it had never moved me to tears. And I felt sure it should.

I had been impressed and harrowed and shocked and fascinated at various times; but never powerfully moved.

And then I saw Robert Stephens take the role in 1993. Indeed, I saw him three times and on each occasion – sometimes at different moments, but always in the final scene – the critical faculties fell away and I just felt. Just felt… overwhelming grief and loss and pity.

Expectations were high: Stephens had given an award-winning performance as Falstaff in the Henry IV plays two years earlier with the same director. There was the sense that the actor had been waiting for the role all of his career – or perhaps it was the other way round. And Stephens was an ill man; in fact, the understudy had to perform the early performances. By all accounts, he was very good. This only added to the pressure.

It wasn’t a uniformly great production. Although on the whole the RSC had pulled in the First Team – Simon Russell Beale, David Bradley, Jenny Quayle, Owen Teale, David Calder – nevertheless there were some unnecessary things going on with a map on the floor and a globe which expelled red sand high upstage centre. There was real water in the storm scene, and that was impressive.

Truly centre stage, however, was Robert Stephens. I cannot convey the power of his performance by specific examples, however well he met the challenges – the curses, his exchanges with the Fool, his disintegration into madness, the heartbreaking meeting with Gloucester in Act IV, the waking up to Cordelia, the folly of his false hope in “birds i’th’cage”, his final appearance with the dead Cordelia. (Some audiences claim that he carried her on. However, each time I saw it a group of soldiers did the business whilst Lear fussed around them. Stephens was too weak to lift even Abigail McKern.) On this occasion, the whole was far greater than the parts. Particular moments simply contributed to the complete characterisation.

Stephens was an heroic actor, technically awesome (although a minor detail such as line accuracy was not always a priority) and prepared to take thrilling risks. However, more than anything else it was his capacity for utter simplicity that opened the floodgates – and I’m not talking about the rain effects.

Shakespeare can do every kind of emotional effect, and he does. But what is so thrilling, so extraordinary, and so moving is that capacity to reduce it right down. “Never, never, never, never, never” (V, iii).

And Robert Stephens understood that.

Perry Mills
Teacher, King Edward VI School
Stratford-upon-Avon

Champions Visit

Today we were delighted to welcome great friends of Sprint for Shakespeare to the Bodleian’s Conservation Workshop. Vanessa Redgrave

Nicole Gilroy, Margo Annett, Thelma Holt and Vanessa Redgrave explore the First FolioVanessa Redgrave, Thelma Holt and Margo Annett visited the First Folio in its temporary home, accompanied by Richard Ovenden, Associate Director of the Bodleian. Nicole Gilroy and the team of conservators, Arthur Green, Andrew Honey, and Julie Sommerfeldt, explained details of the book’s history, and the work they are carrying out.

Maximilian Gill, Jessica Norman, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Neumark Jones, Jordan Waller, and Ruby Thomas with the First FolioWe were lucky enough to be joined by the cast and creatives of Oxford University Dramatic Society‘s Much Ado About Nothing (produced by Thelma Holt). Aidan Grounds (Producer), Maximilian Gill (Director), Jordan Waller (Benedick), Ruby Thomas (Beatrice), Jeremy Neumark Jones (Claudio), and Jessica Norman (Hero) chatted to Vanessa Redgrave before filming part of Act 1, Scene 1 with the BBC Oxford television crew:

What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Vanessa Redgrave and Jeremy SternJeremy Stern conducted interviews with Richard Ovenden and Vanessa Redgrave: if you are local to the Oxford area, watch the 6.30 news on BBC1 tonight to see more!

We’re enormously grateful to Vanessa Redgrave and Thelma Holt for all the support they are lending our campaign. It was a joy to be able to show them and our other guests our work underway.

Much Ado About Nothing opens at the Bodleian on 7 August 2012, before going on tour to Stratford-upon-Avon (The Dell), London (Southwark Playhouse), Guildford (Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre), and Tokyo (Saitama Arts Theatre). Tickets for the Oxford run are available from the Oxford Playhouse.

King Lear in Quarto and Folio

Will Sharpe writes…

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, the book that has come to be known more familiarly around the world as the First Folio of Shakespeare, was published in 1623 by the stationer Edward Blount, and printed by the father-and-son duo William and Isaac Jaggard. Its bringing to light, however, was down to an apparent labour of love on the part of two of the principal actors in Shakespeare’s theatre company, John Heminges and Henry Condell.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Shakespeare, sensing the approach of death, might himself have asked his friends to see his works into print, although arguments about Shakespeare’s attitude towards the printing of his works remain frustratingly opaque. Lukas Erne, among others, has argued, in his book Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist, that Shakespeare cared very much about his own presence in the London bookshops, while it has been a longstanding narrative attaching to Shakespeare, still upheld in many corners, that he virtually let the manuscript pages he had written flutter into the breeze behind him, such was his apparent indifference to posterity.

This is of course an offshoot of the Romantic vision of Shakespeare as genius, as unworldly creator, and the more usual view of him as a non-literary author in the modern sense has been, since the 1980s, to reemphasise his role as theatrical professional, writing scripts for a company that then held control of them as business assets (their business being live performance). The Folio is justly regarded as one of the most important books in the English language, not least because it ensured the survival of around half of Shakespeare’s plays. All of the following were first printed in, and therefore rendered to posterity by, this book:

  •  All’s Well That Ends Well
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • As You Like It
  • The Comedy of Errors
  • Coriolanus
  • Cymbeline
  • 1 Henry VI
  • Henry VIII
  • Julius Caesar
  • King John
  • Macbeth
  • Measure for Measure
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • The Tempest
  • Timon of Athens
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • The Winter’s Tale

The rest had already been individually printed in quarto format – small, flimsy books that were cheap to produce – though some of these differ quite dramatically from their Folio counterparts.

There are many reasons for this, and every Folio text has a different genetic history (the fullest and best account can be found in the Oxford University Press study, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion).

To choose King Lear as probably the highest profile case, no other Shakespeare play that exists in multiple formats bears such strong evidence of revision from Quarto to Folio, apparently informed by attempts to perform it on stage, and this is just one of the ways in which the Folio can also tell us about Shakespeare’s work as both creative artist and pragmatic theatre professional.

The 1608 Quarto, called The True Chronicle History of King Lear lacks about 100 lines that are in the Folio text, which calls itself The Tragedy of King Lear, but notably contains about 300 that aren’t, including the ‘mock trial’ scene in the hovel on the heath during the storm.

Somewhere around 1610, Shakespeare almost certainly adapted his original text for a revival, making the aforementioned additions and cuts and altering many words and phrases within speeches.  There are thus many “substantive” differences (i.e. differences in individual words) between Quarto (Q) and Folio (F), which can be illustrated by comparing Lear’s opening line from each:

Q – ‘Meanwhile we will express our darker purposes.’

F – ‘Meanwhile we shall express our darker purpose.’ (I, i)

The Oxford Shakespeare prints the two texts separately, such are the complexities of the linguistic and structural differences between them, though the tradition in editing has been more towards conflation.

Painstaking studies show that the Quarto text bears strong linguistic parallels with the plays that chronologically precede it (All’s WellTimonOthello), while the language of the Folio text is more akin to Shakespeare’s late ‘Romance’ plays (The Winter’s TaleCymbeline and The Tempest), thus strengthening the claim for the date of revision being around 1610.

There is no evidence for performances of this revival, but we can say with near certainty, based on the Folio text, that they must have taken place. The substantive readings of F are perceived by many as superior to those of Q, while Q’s ‘mock trial’ scene has repeatedly proved an immensely powerful moment in performances of the play, speaking directly to twentieth-century audiences informed philosophically by the ‘theatre of the absurd’, pioneered by writers such as Samuel Beckett as a way of illustrating the desperate futility of man’s existence (a huge thematic concern in King Lear).

That the scene was cut from Shakespeare’s later adaptation may suggest that it didn’t have the same poignant resonance with Jacobean audiences, though whatever the case may have been, the Folio can nonetheless be seen by this example to be, among many other things, a valuable source of evidence for theatre historians as well as literary critics.

The Folio takes its soubriquet from the folio format in which it is printed, characterised by a single folding of the sheets of paper – very expensive at the time – that are to be bound together, hence bigger books, using more paper and at much greater cost to the publisher. It was mainly reserved for Bibles, as the publisher was certain of recovering costs on them.

Printing plays from the unsavoury public theatres in folio was virtually unheard of, though Ben Jonson’s much-derided Workes of 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, is the notable precedent. There was obvious financial gain to be had – the Folio cost 15 shillings unbound or a pound if it was bound, depending on the binding – yet it was also a risk. It clearly paid off, however, and were it not for the efforts of all those involved in the venture our knowledge of Shakespeare would, quite literally, be half of what it is today.

Some of the most global, inexhaustible artworks we have would have been – but for the careful mechanical labours of a group of men in a London printing house between 1621 and 1623 – lost within the great vault of history.

Images of the Folio already abound online, but the Bodleian’s copy still retains the cover in which it was bound in 1624 when the library took ownership of it, and the page damage shows the reading habits of a cohort of seventeenth-century students handling the book as utilitarian object not priceless cultural artefact. It made a long, partially mysterious journey away from the library, returning again in the early twentieth century, and is, in other words, more valuable as a material witness to its own reception and survival than as a conveyor of text (many “clean” copies of the Folio survive). The conservation team is therefore applying a minimal interference policy to preserve that record for bibliographic study. The book’s fragility means that it would be a story in which few could share; but this exciting online digitisation project will ensure that it is one that can potentially reach, and inspire, the whole world.

Will Sharpe

Many voices

The covers of the First Folio enclose many voices,” Dr Edmund King said, in passing.

The phrase has stuck in my mind. Edmund, whose research includes eighteenth-century editors of Shakespeare, was talking about dramatic production. Alongside Shakespeare’s voice are those of many collaborators: co-writers, revisers, and actors all contributed to Shakespeare’s play texts before they even reached a publisher.

Within the First Folio, some of these voices are named.

Ben Jonson’s beautiful poem ‘To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR’ sits next to others by Leonard Digges, Hugh Holland, and James Mabbe.

A letter of dedication is written by John Heminge and Henry Condell, friends and fellow actors of Shakespeare. Less formally, they also write a letter “To the great Variety of Readers.” The names of these two men, who speak so warmly of Shakespeare, are also listed among the “Principall Actors”.

Edward Blount, Isaac Jaggard, John Smethwick, and William Aspley are named as the publishers. Jaggard’s name also stands for his father, William, who died while the book was in production.

Your voice can be added to those of Aspley, Blount, Condell, Digges, Heminge, Holland, Jaggard, Jonson, Mabbe, Smethwick, and the many printing-house workers whose names are lost to us. By donating to the campaign, you will help open our copy of this book to the world, and your name will appear online, alongside it. You can name someone you would like your donation to be dedicated to, and their name will be added too.

There is another way to add your voice. We are looking for guest bloggers to write posts for us to publish here.

We want to hear what you think of Shakespeare — of the First Folio, of film or theatre productions you’ve seen, your favourite speech, your worst character, the first teacher who inspired love for Shakespeare, a character you acted, a play you directed, bits that make you laugh, and what makes you cry…

Post your thoughts on other people’s blogposts in the Comments below, or email us your own post to be published here: shakespeare@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.