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

Jacobi’s Lear: a heartbreaking vision

Guest blogger, Angela Cartwright, writes…

Like many, no doubt, I find myself drawn to dramatic productions of King Lear. It’s not so much that I yearn for something new and fresh (after all, the text off the page in any interpretation is bound to entertain), but there’s always the possibility that this might occur. Not necessarily throughout an entire production but somewhere.

And in this regards, Sir Derek Jacobi’s performance as Lear in Michael Grandage’s 2010 production for the Donmar Warehouse did not disappoint. For me, there was one moment in particular that was simply unforgettable.

It’s all too familiar: the storm is heard brewing at the end of Act II and it then forms the backdrop for Act III. And it is usually such a dominating feature that it can be quite difficult to hear the speeches clearly above the cataclysmic racket. Certainly, I’ve seen many productions where Lear has personified the storm by shouting and blustering his way through the well-known speech: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”

But not this production and not Jacobi.

Instead, the sound of the storm fell away dramatically and the audience seemed entirely still as well as silent as the world of Lear assumed a hushed and altogether disturbing atmosphere. And only then did Jacobi begin. His delivery of this speech was absolutely spellbinding and also quite frightening. Rather than opting for an outward display of rage, Jacobi’s Lear quietly internalized the metaphoric storm and in this way offered a harrowing glimpse into the devastating effects of an ailing mind.
Never before had I been so confronted and affected by the pitiable spectacle of this king – this man – losing his 5 wits and much, much more besides. And as a consequence, tears – hitherto unbidden so early in the play – were called forth and shed, because of the rather surprising and overwhelming pathos generated by this heartbreaking vision.

I’ve wondered whether this interpretation — and perhaps also my response to it — was informed by the reality our aging society and its increasing demands on an ailing health system. There may well be something in that but, that being said, the truth of the matter is that the play itself accommodated this interpretation. And to my mind, the fact that this play could deliver something so seemingly modern and breathtakingly real — after so many centuries and countless productions — is more than enough proof of its brilliance.

Angela Cartwright

Staging King Lear

Guest blogger, Jonny Patrick, writes…

My favourite moment in Shakespeare is the scene in King Lear where the blind Gloucester is led by his son Edgar to the cliffs of Dover, where he intends to commit suicide. Gloucester does not know that his guide is Edgar, who has taken on the disguise of the madman Poor Tom.

Gloucester has lost his sight; we have ours. However, what we are about to see will make us question its reliability, morality, even its desirability. We watch as Edgar leads his father forward, telling him that he is now “within a foot / Of th’extreme verge” (IV, vi). He gives a dizzying verbal picture of the view from the precipice. Gloucester tells him to leave and Edgar does so. What, we ask ourselves, is Edgar playing at? Will he really let his father jump? Is this some kind of revenge for Gloucester’s earlier injustices towards him? In an aside, Edgar addresses the question, but tells us merely “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it”. In this play about eyes, where should we look: at the man about to leap or at his son, who must surely stop this from happening?

Then Gloucester jumps. He falls, and is prostrate onstage. So he’s dead? Have we really just watched a man leap to his death? Edgar himself is unsure and runs up to Gloucester. Assuming a new accent and persona, he shouts to Gloucester, who wakes up. Once again, Shakespeare pitches us into confusion. Have we just watched a man jump from a cliff and survive? Or have we just seen him die then rise from the dead? Gloucester himself is unsure: “But have I fallen or no?” Ultimately, we can work out that this is an elaborate ruse by Edgar, designed to trick his father out of his suicidal despair by convincing him that he has been miraculously preserved. Gloucester’s leap landed him on the ground before him; Edgar never took him to the edge. But Edgar/Shakespeare is toying with us too: was that really what we saw?

I can think of nothing more purely theatrical than this scene. On the radio or on film, it just can’t work in the same way. It has to be done on a bare stage; make the staging realistic and you give away that Gloucester hasn’t jumped at all. It’s a soul-saving experience for Gloucester and a theatrical miracle.

Jonny Patrick
Head of English, St Paul’s Girls’ School

A third more opulent

Guest blogger Robert Stagg writes…

what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters’?

(King Lear Folio I, i, 85-6)

In speaking, the actor playing Lear – let alone Cordelia – must consider not only “what” to say but how to say it. In offering “A third more opulent than your sisters’”, does he emphasise “more” or “opulent”? – that is to say, does Lear think Cordelia will be allured by sheer wealth or sororal competition? Two different stress-routes are offered through the lines.

Two months ago, I was experiencing another problem of stress. I was writing a 10,000-word Master’s dissertation while rehearsing to play Lear in a psychology experiment. Audiences would see two different versions of King Lear I, i and I, ii. One version presented an affable Lear ruined by Cordelia’s refusal to join in his joke. The other showed the audience a king leering at his daughter, managing the family succession with a thin-faced relish. The affable Lear stressed a “more opulent” third in a playful manner; the second Lear laid emphasis on “opulent”, his eyes shining at the spoken riches.

An actor’s decision to place stress on “opulent” seems to accord with expectations of an iambic line; the first syllable of “opulent” (“op”) acquires stress if we are to read the line iambically. But the “o” of “opulent” is helped and enabled by the previous “o” in “more”. There is almost an elision or slur between the o’s. So stressing “opulent” comes with the permission of, and certainly not at the expense of, “more” – an auxiliary disruption of the iambic pattern.

Shakespeare, then, does not exactly give advice to the players (as Peter Hall’s book title, drawing on Hamlet, misleadingly promises). Here, Shakespeare does the opposite; he plays with the iambic advice of the line, makes it more difficult than counting syllables on fingers. Instead, the players are given a possibility or possibilities. From this small matter of stress – “more” or “opulent”? – comes an impression of Lear’s attitude to Cordelia and, with it, our attitude towards her. Does he think her greedy or competitive, and how so? Does his voice command our confidence in that judgement, or judgements? In a stutter, or a stumble, or a stress, worlds of possibility loop out from individual lines – like the parallel worlds or universes of modern physics – and create a staging of the play. The actor cannot play all the worlds at once; but he can hear a glimpse of its aspects from the stresses and strains of Shakespeare’s lines.

Robert Stagg

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

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

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