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

Healing in The Winter’s Tale

Guest blogger, Katherine Arnold, writes…

For this affliction has a taste as sweet
As any cordial comfort. Still, methinks,
There is an air comes from her: what fine chisel
Could ever yet cut breath? Let no man mock me,
For I will kiss her.

The Winter’s Tale, V, iii

My most vivid impression of a scene in Shakespeare’s plays takes place, odd as it may sound, in a work I have never seen performed. The startling transformation of Queen Hermione’s statue in The Winter’s Tale sparked my sudden, belated appreciation for the play both as a work in isolation and for its vibrant connections to other literature. The moment marks the reconcilement of the royal families, the younger generation with the older, and Hermione with her repentant husband, which presented, to me, clear evidence of the beautiful possibilities a gesture of forgiveness offers for familial and spiritual revival. Moreover, her return, following the romance of Perdita and Florizel, completes the transition from the winter of the play’s first three acts to the spring of the final two.

The captivating image of a living statue led to a series of questions and, in turn, fascination with the indicated complexities. How could the actors be positioned onstage? What gestures and expressions would they have? Would there be a line of symmetry between the family members of Sicily and Bohemia, and how could the significance of the moment be extended? While the written words and speech had initially taken my attention, in a form where visual actions hold as much importance on stage, these questions began my appreciation for the variety of potential interpretations (has Hermione been alive, or is it magic? Does she accept Leontes’s remorse as genuine?) which change and colour any performance (or, in this case, reading) of a play.

These considerations, as well as the play’s connection to another piece of literature, led to the unexpected penetration of the issues of remorse and healing through knowing a different set of characters from another time period. My first encounter with the statue’s transformation came, after all, through reading George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (Gwendolen Harleth takes up the role of Hermione, directing Rex Gascoigne to play Leontes, and kneel and kiss the hem of her dress) which presents a striking, unforgettable view of Shakespeare’s characters for the purpose of a novel. The play, far from standing untouched through time, has both history and descendents in works of literature, releasing exhilaration for the questions that arise among layers of meaning. Even a reading of Hermione’s return elicited this vivacity, an affirmation of the openness of Shakespeare’s work to our joys and our experiences.

Katherine Arnold

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

Shakespeare Abroad

We’re grateful to Peter Parkinson for our second guest blog post. He writes…

A spectacular feature on the island of Cyprus is the restored Roman amphitheatre of Curium, some dozen miles west of Limassol. Carved out of the hillside and looking outwards high above the sea, its restoration was begun little more than half a century ago. The theatre is idyllic but, of an evening when the darkness falls and there is a performance, the effect is truly magical.

Some 50 years ago, a British sergeant working in the (UK-administered) Western Sovereign Base Area, spotted the potential of a theatre in ruins. And so began the annual production of Shakespeare. The first play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the cast coming mainly from amateur companies associated with the British Forces. But because the venture was intended as a joint British/Cypriot affair, locals were also drafted in, and the proceeds went to Cypriot charities.

I was fortunate to have been in five productions, from 1973 to 1977. My first appearance was in Hamlet. I was new to the island and unused to acting. The director that year was a British schoolmaster and he it was who cajoled me into the part of Fortinbras. I was later promoted to Player King and I will never forget my first entrance. Not only was I a tiro who had some pretty dramatic stuff to deliver, but it was also before an audience of 2,000. My feelings were a mix of terror and bewilderment.

My daughter, not yet four, had already announced herself and amused the audience. When the Ghost coaxed Hamlet on to the battlements, her small but clear voice rang out: “Don’t go, Hamlet! Don’t go!”

Two other memories. One involved a large beetle lurching and scratching a path towards my ear as I lay on the stone stage. Hamlet, spotting the danger, put in an unscheduled move and crushed it beneath his heel. So decisive, I thought, and so uncharacteristic of Hamlet. Then there was the incident of the snake that decided to share the stage-side bunker with the lady prompt.

I remember too we had a Cypriot Laertes who addressed his adversary as “Noble Omelette” but very dramatically, as one would expect of a Greek. Another recollection is of our script discussion as to whether we should omit the potentially controversial line: “striking short at Greeks”.

In 1974 there was the failed coup against Makarios, followed by the Turkish invasion. These dramatic events occurred a month after our production of Twelfth Night. We did wonder, in all the confusion, whether the tradition could survive the island’s partition and the mass of real life tragedies all around us. But come the summer of 1975 we were up and running again with The Merry Wives of Windsor. Audience numbers were understandably down, but Makarios’s Vice President, Glavkos Clerides, honoured us with his presence, making us feel that the decision to carry on regardless had been right.

Last summer in Paris, I met a group of Cypriot tourists and asked whether the performances still happened. They hastened to assure me they did, and I discovered this year that the production was The Merchant of Venice, billed as the 49th in the sequence.

Peter Parkinson

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