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

This candle burns not clear

Andrew Honey, one of the Bodleian’s conservators who worked on the First Folio, writes…

This candle burns not clear: ’tis I must snuff it

Henry VIII, III, ii

Andrew Honey and Sarah Wheale study First Folios

Andrew Honey and Sarah Wheale study First Folios

Recent attention has rightly focused on the ‘Bodleian’ copy of the First Folio (Arch. G c.7) but some final checks of the catalogue records, in advance of the images being published, gave me the chance to see the Bodleian’s other copy – the ‘Malone’ (Arch. G c.8). I spent two memorable mornings with Sarah Wheale and Pip Willcox collating the two copies. This involved a leaf-by-leaf comparison of them against each other and against the published descriptions, checking for anomalies and differences.

If the Bodleian copy stands as witness to the early reception of the plays, then the Malone copy marks the start of modern Shakespearean textual scholarship. It belonged to Edmond Malone (1741–1812), the editor of Shakespeare whose unprecedented documentary and textual research led him to consult the early quartos and folios of the plays more thoroughly than any scholar before him in order to establish an authoritative text.

At first sight Malone’s copy, clad in a late eighteenth-century binding that he commissioned, looks more pristine than the well-thumbed but carefully preserved Bodleian copy. Closer examination, however, reveals a greater degree of repair and ‘improvement’. The repairs seem to have been carried out as part of the binding process and some pages are now discoloured in places – probably the result of the partial rinsing (with new bleaching agents that were just starting to be used in this period) to remove blots and annotations from books.

The book has other more mysterious marks which seem to be later than the rebinding.  As we carefully worked though the volume burn holes were spotted in places and groups of round stains could be seen. Surely these cannot have happened after the book entered the Bodleian in 1815, where all readers and staff solemnly swear an oath that they will not “kindle therein any fire or flame” – could they have been caused by Edmond Malone’s nighttime reading?

Unfortunately Edmond Malone did not live to see the ‘snuffless’ candles that emerged in the 1820s with plaited wicks: his nighttime reading would have required constant tending of his candle. Maureen Dillon in her illuminating Artificial Sunshine: a social history of domestic lighting (London: National Trust, 2002) explains that “the best-quality tallow candles could last for at least twenty minutes before snuffing, while the cheapest tallow candles, if a decent flame was to be kept and guttering avoided, needed snuffing every few minutes”.

The burn marks in the Malone copy are small, and appear to be caused by small embers falling onto the opened book and lying there momentarily before being extinguished. Other burn holes, decreasing in size, are found in the leaves underneath the first hole but are not found on the leaves facing the largest hole.

The yellowish round stains have the appearance of wax or tallow and fall as circular spots which have made the paper translucent in places. Could this be evidence of Malone’s distracted management of tallow candles whilst he read? The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records that he seriously damaged his eye-sight by combing through the corporation archives at Stratford by dim candle-light; his First Folio would seem to suggest that he read it on occasion under similarly difficult lighting conditions.

Andrew Honey (with thanks to Abigail Williams)

Considering Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Paul Kasay, writes…

I used to be relatively confident in my idea of Shakespeare. Or at least I thought there wasn’t much to know, and that seemed almost the same thing as having an opinion. I’m relieved to say I no longer have that kind of confidence. Instead, I have more doubt as to what he meant than ever before: every critic and authoritative text always seeming to offer another lovely contradiction. I’m also more confident in the idea that this kind of doubt is the point.

Much has been said about William Shakespeare: historic analysis from various schools of thought; ideas on the importance of the author; or the importance of his context; or the importance of his later editors; or the influence of his contemporaries. With everything from complex close readings on character intent to the more subtle debates on how to properly act out “Exit, pursued by a bear” (The Winter’s Tale, III, iii). For all that has been said, there are always more words, and always more room for them.

In the end, the questions Shakespeare poses are more powerful when they are considered, not when they are answered: considerations of identity and death, love and folly, the uses of power, and the psychological responses to grief. In every raging soliloquy to every spritely aside, Shakespeare defies the attempts to assign easy morals or quiet conclusions. Whether this is due to the veil of history or the fog of fame or the clear expressions of a master artist, and more than likely it is all of these things, there is always the sense that “this our life exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones and good in everything” (As You Like It, II, i). A good life is, after all, filled with heroes and villains, the ordinary and the complex, and the odd ways they switch roles.

If mystery most properly describes life, then Shakespeare as an artist, and then as a man, comes as close as possible to saying it truly. In the end, he is one of the only authors great enough to encompass it, touching on more than many can consider. Not simplicity in fiction, but a recasting of life recognizable yet elevated, shown for all its potentially brilliant tragedy and oscillating beauty. Even now, Shakespeare seems far more alive than dead, no matter what you thought of him in high school.

Paul Kasay

The Merchant’s Servant

Guest blogger, David Schajer, writes…

my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew. The fiend gives the more friendly counsel: I will run, fiend; my heels are at your command; I will run.


The Merchant of Venice, II ii

My favourite Shakespeare experience was when I was re-reading The Merchant of Venice, specifically the speech by Shylock’s servant Launcelot where he debates whether or not to leave his master.

Launcelot speaks of the “fiend” who tells him to leave Shylock, and his “conscience” which tells him not to leave. Finally the fiend wins out. Launcelot decides to run away.

I wondered why Shakespeare wrote such a long speech for such a minor character. Who cares if he leaves Shylock? Was there some deeper meaning?

Then it hit me. The role of Launcelot would have been first performed, on the stage of the Theatre in Shoreditch perhaps, by the famous Elizabethan actor Will Kemp, known for comedic roles.

What I realized is that there is no deeper meaning — the speech is a comedy routine. Kemp is taking the temperature of his audience, to see how they feel about Shylock. He wants the crowd to make noise, and speak their minds aloud.

At first I thought that the entire audience would be unsympathetic to Shylock, and would yell at Launcelot to leave him. Shylock has long been portrayed as a villain, sometimes an inhuman villain and more recently as a human being, a good man undone by his anger. So, I imagined that Shakespeare’s audience would hate Shylock, the villain.

Then it dawned on me that Shakespeare would not have written the speech if the entire audience hated Shylock. The speech invites debate and disagreement from the audience. The fact that the question is asked at all is an indication that there would be some sympathy for Shylock, the Jew, even in Elizabethan London.

Why would be there any sympathy for Shylock? Because Shylock is not the villain but in fact the hero of the play.

At the time, I did not know how or why he is the hero, but it was this this speech that was the key to unlocking the play and proving that this, arguably Shakespeare’s most problematic “problem play” is not a tragicomedy where Shylock is the villain, but in fact a very bawdy farce where the only character with any character is Shylock.

David Schajer

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

Teach young babes

Guest blogger, Judith Siefring, writes…

Those that do teach young babes
Do it with gentle means and easy tasks

Othello, IV, ii

Like so many of us, I love reading and watching Shakespeare. And like many book-loving parents, I perhaps think a little too much about how to pass on my favourite works to my children. I’m a digital editor at the Bodleian and having had the good fortune to work on the Shakespeare Quartos Archive in 2009, when my son was only two years old, I pondered the question of when to introduce a child to Shakespeare rather earlier than most!

I would often sit at my laptop surrounded by different editions of Hamlet, while my son played happily on the floor beside me. I have a treasured photograph of him absorbed in a paperback Hamlet; any secret desires I may have had to circulate it as evidence of my son’s incipient genius were scuppered by the fact that the book is upside down.

When my son was four, I decided to dip our toes together into Shakespeare in performance by taking him to the wonderful Shakespeare4Kidz production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Any doubts I may have had about whether it is possible to make Shakespeare truly appealing for kids were quickly dispelled by a theatre full of children in hysterics at the antics of Puck and company. Well over a year later, my son still talks about “the funny fairy guy”. I must confess, too, to feeling just a tiny bit smug when my boy pointed excitedly at a theatre poster recently at a crowded traffic crossing and bellowed, “Look Mummy – Hamlet!!

Now with the fantastic Sprint for Shakespeare initiative for inspiration, the time might be right to get to work on my two-year-old daughter…

 Judith Siefring

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

Digital Globe

This week, The Economist‘s A.C. writes about the digital reinvention of Shakespeare, and opens by describing this year’s staging of 37 plays in 37 different languages at Shakespeare’s Globe. Today we are delighted to publish a guest post by the Globe’s Ruth Frendo and Jordan Landes, who write…

Digital technology intersects Shakespeare studies in many different ways. The digitization of the Bodleian’s First Folio is a brilliant example of how digital media can enhance access to Shakespeare.

The Library and Archive at Shakespeare’s Globe are pursuing another route: the digital capture of performances. Capturing the ephemeral, preserving it and making it available for current and future audiences, has always challenged performance archives. At the Globe, where performance and research combine to explore Shakespeare’s texts in a unique and exciting way, capture and preservation are crucial.

Performances at the Globe have been recorded since the very first productions in 1997. Technology has transformed since then, and we recently installed a capture system which records at a far higher quality than previously used. Capturing more data provides the recordings with more visible data, and facilitates their preservation.

Our next step will be to upgrade our cameras and cabling to produce and transmit high definition television signals. New cameras will give us greater control of light and focus settings, providing higher tolerance of changing environmental conditions – an important consideration for recording in an outdoor theatre during a typical British summer!

Today’s information professionals are pioneers in the untamed landscape of digital preservation, a terrain whose boundaries and pitfalls shift with each new technological development. The prospect is as exhilarating as it is daunting. The more digital resources that libraries and archives can provide for researchers, the more useful we will remain.

Ruth Frendo, Archivist and Jordan Landes, former Librarian
Shakespeare’s Globe

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.


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.


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?


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