In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, his friends decided to compile his plays into a single volume.
They called it Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies: Published According to the True Original Copies. This book included 18 plays that had never been printed before, plays like Macbeth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and The Tempest that could otherwise have been lost forever.
This year, on its 400th anniversary, we sat down with Bell Shakespeare’s Associate Director James Evans to discuss the First Folio.
What is the First Folio and can you tell us about the history behind it?
When Shakespeare died, only about half of his plays were circulating in print. Fortunately, his friends, specifically the actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, decided that perhaps people might want to read all of the plays one day. So with great care and effort, they collated as many as they could find and put them together in this book. We may never have had access to some of the plays – Macbeth, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Measure for Measure might have been lost forever. Now, my friend [Associate Professor] David McInnis says that’s not true, that they would have been published eventually – maybe they would. I’m just saying, we may have lost them forever. We know that we’ve definitely lost one – Cardenio, which was Shakespeare’s take on the Don Quixote story. All we have is a title for that play, so it is possible that some of the others would have been lost as well.
What is the significance of the First Folio for theatre and English literature?
I suppose for the first time, it pulled into one place the whole scope of Shakespeare’s work. Almost every single other writer is either good at comedy, or good at tragedy, or good at writing historical drama. The First Folio showed in a really clear and obvious way, that this writer was adept at all the forms, and explored the entirety of the human experience from beginning to end in one book. John Bell calls it the secular bible – Shakespeare’s take on every stage of human life and every emotion, every relationship, and every experience that we can go through, seems to be in that one book. You can dip into at any time of your life and find something that speaks to you. I think that’s the significance of it.
What would the world that we live in today look like if the First Folio had never been published?
I sometimes think of the little things. “The be-all and the end-all” from Macbeth – we wouldn’t have that phrase. Even the word “assassination”, Shakespeare comes up with that word in that play. Phrases that are so poetically powerful – “If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it”, or “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. The idea of the world as stage was common during Shakespeare’s time, but he’s the writer that really distilled it down to that one image and that one speech in As You Like It. That metaphor is powerful to us today because of that play, and we would have lost that. So I think a lot of ways that we think about the world, metaphorical constructs about the world, exist in the First Folio that might not have existed otherwise in the same way. The First Folio brought us so many English-language phrases that are so familiar to us, like “what’s done is done” [Macbeth], “break the ice” [The Taming of the Shrew], “melted into thin air” [The Tempest], “neither rhyme nor reason” [The Comedy of Errors] and “I have not slept one wink” [Cymbeline].
If you could go back in time and meet John Heminges and Henry Condell, collators of the First Folio, what would you say to them?
Well, first probably a hearty thank you. Then I’d ask them some questions. First of all, where are the originals? What happened to Shakespeare’s foul papers [original drafts] and the fair copies that were written out by a scribe so meticulously? Why weren’t they just locked away in a box somewhere, put in a house and kept, so that we can refer back to them? Always remember that there’s no such thing as knowing what Shakespeare’s original text was. We don’t have that. We don’t have Shakespeare’s handwriting, except possibly in one obscure speech from a play that he co-wrote. Apart from that, we can’t know for sure what is original and what is editorial. One of the considerations, for example, for an editor at the time would have been what fits on a page. Sections, lines or words may have just been omitted because they didn’t fit. I’d love to have access to those documents, but we never will. They’ve either disintegrated or disappeared or burnt up or whatever. So I’d like them to answer that question. And also for them to talk a little bit about why they ordered the plays the way they did within the Folio.
I’d also love to know about the popularity of the plays at the time. Because they were actors in Shakespeare’s company, I’d love to know what audiences responded to and really loved. Which plays kept coming back and for what reason? Which plays kind of sank without a trace, and why? I’d love to know what audiences were really like at the time.
The State Library of New South Wales owns the only known copy of the First Folio in Australia. Having seen it, can you describe what it means to you?
I think it’s a very special object, and we’re very lucky. There’s only a couple in the Southern Hemisphere, I think. And, you know, I’ve got a pretty active imagination so I love when I’m with an object, being able to project myself into that world and just imagine what it was like – there’s a physical connection between you and 400 years ago, suddenly there in front of you. Just being able to lay your hand on that somehow transports you. It certainly does for me. I can imagine myself there, by the printing presses, watching this book roll off the press and hit the streets. It was a very expensive book – the equivalent of a couple of hundred dollars today.
The publishers at the time knew that it was an important book. It wasn’t just a regular old throwaway paperback. Folio pages were pages that were folded over just once and they were usually reserved for very important religious texts. This was the first time a play text had been published in that form. It was expensive and was already seen as precious, I think, so they already knew this was something important at the time.