Posts Tagged ‘Folger Shakespeare Library’

Thou shalt not covet…

November 20, 2015

41wmVdzREbL._AA160_I thought about calling this post ‘book p*rn’ but decided against it, lest anyone get the wrong idea, but perhaps you may see my thinking after you’ve read further…

A number of years ago, feeling flush, I treated myself to a facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare. I don’t have a use for it, I just wanted it. I’ve seen a real one several times, and it looks gorgeous: serious paper, made to last, just like the binding, beautiful print, nearly 400 years old. And a reproduction was the nearest I could get. Every now and then I take it down from the shelf, ease it from the slipcase, and browse the pages, read some of my favourite speeches in that marvellous seventeenth century font. It’s a beautifully produced twentieth century book (from an American publisher, of course) on lovely, quality paper, sewn and cloth-bound.

It’s a curious book, in a lot of ways. For one, the First Folio doesn’t contain all of the plays – for some reason, Pericles isn’t included. As a production, it’s rather shoddy: there are lots of mistakes in the pagination, for example, and a whole raft of other inconsistencies. Because it was a huge undertaking for the time, it had to be typeset and printed in sections, and the type re-used; time and money pressures meant that there were several compositors, not all of the same standard; for some pages, text had to be crammed in towards the bottom of a page so that particular section would fit, so it’s not set out ‘properly’ (as we know it)… But if it hadn’t been produced, chances are we would have far fewer of the Bard’s plays.

The facsimile itself is a labour of love from half a century ago. The main use of such a work is for critics and other textual analysts to try and work out what Shakespeare actually meant in various places where his meaning isn’t evident, or clear: by comparing all printed editions (quartos and folios) over time, it is hoped to unravel some of the mysteries… There is a library in the US, the Folger Shakespeare Library, which has gradually acquired the largest collection of copies of the original First Folio – it’s still not really known how many were printed in 1623, but it seems to have been less than a thousand – and there are many subtle differences between existing copies, depending on whether the pages had been corrected or not, and at what stage in the printing they were actually produced. So pretty nearly every copy can differ from its fellows in tiny ways.

This also means that I have a facsimile of a book that doesn’t actually exist! Because, having many copies to work from, it was possible to go through all those copies, and for every page, make a reproduction of the best (most textually correct, and sharpest/clearest printing) available page from all those copies, before collating them into the 1968 version.

It is truly a work of art. And every time I open it, there is something of a frisson when reading those well-known speeches or exchanges that one has loved and studied in the past, in the script and font from the time of Shakespeare himself; somehow I am taken closer to the man himself and his time…

Shakespeare’s First Folio

September 24, 2014

I’ve finally watched the recent programme by Simon Russell Beale in the BBC Secret Life of Books series, and was mildly disappointed: nothing new revealed, just some nice shots of very old books to drool over, really. A missed opportunity, but it had me reflecting on my life with Shakespeare.

Quite a few years ago, when in need of a treat, and feeling flush, I treated myself to a facsimile of the First Folio. It is a lovely book, and there is something quite magical in being transported back four centuries and seeing the complete works as they first appeared from the press. And yet, it’s a complete fake, of course. The Norton edition is a collation of photographic reproductions of the best pages from dozens of different First Folios, all collected at the Folger Library somewhere in the US, I can’t remember where. So, as a fascimile it’s the best possible one to have: no blurred or smudged pages, and so on. Just that the ‘original’ of it doesn’t exist!

Texts, especially Shakespeare’s, are edited and interpreted for us before we read them. Different quartos (if these exist) and the various folios are compared, decisions taken where uncertainties exist; spellings are often modernised, as is punctuation, words are glossed and explained in footnotes: our access to 16th/17th century texts is eased, simplified. Although there are the famous ‘cruxes’ – words or phrases that nobody has succeeded in making head or tail of since then: the ‘arm-gaunt steed’ in Antony and Cleopatra, for instance – that remain to puzzle us.

At this point it is good to remind oneself that these plays were written to be performed in the theatre, not pored over in a classroom or lecture theatre, and I often did remind my students of this fact. And how different the experience is: language that seems impenetrable on the page is instantaneously digested and understood with ease – if only partially – and interpreted for us with the help of the action onstage. The play is brought to life – oh so powerfully and as intended – and we receive what Shakespeare intended, but then remember it has been mediated by a director and the actors…

Studying the written text can be very revealing and very fulfilling: one can explore, and focus on the power of the language and the cleverness of the writer; one can seek connections and links throughout a play; one can analyse rhyme or rhythm. None of this is a substitute for the real thing. And yet, it’s partly this that has led to the hagiography of Shakespeare over the centuries. Not that that is undeserved, but I suspect it does mean that it is no longer possible to stand sufficiently far enough back to get any real perspective on the man and his work in his time. As Simon Russell Beale pointed out, if the First Folio hadn’t been compiled, then we’d only have half of Shakespeare’s plays. What would we make of him then?

Edited texts: the Arden Shakespeare second series was always the gold standard in my student days and is still the one I prefer, though long discontinued. The Arden third series is good, though not as good, and if I had to recommend a modern edition it would be the New Cambridge Shakespeare, which certainly now has the edge. And for a smaller and cheaper edition, it is still hard to beat the New Penguin, with its excellent introductions, though having to flip to the back for notes and glosses has always annoyed me.

I was amused to read of the glitch – a two hour bomb-scare – at the opening of the new Shakespeare theatre in the Polish city of Gdansk: of course, the silly Prime Minister did mention the name of the Scottish play….


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