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

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