Shakespeare: You’ve probably heard of him. You most likely had to read his work in high school or college. You’ve doubtless seen a film, or live performance, or modern adaptation, of one of his famous plays. If I told you he was the be-all and end-all of English literature, and sent you on a wild goose chase to find evidence of his influence all the live-long day, you might even realize I was quoting Shakespeare (he introduced those and other cliches into the English language). There’s a chance you wouldn’t know about any of that, however, if Shakespeare’s bibliography had been left in the state it was in when he died in 1616, at the age of 52.
At that time, only about half of his dramatic work had been published, and the quality of that was inconsistent at best. These were circulated individually, in “quarto” form — a thin booklet about the size of a worksheet packet you might get in school, and equally as durable — and while some of these were above the board, many of them were riddled with errors and omissions. Modern scholars call the latter “bad quartos,” and surmise that they were probably scribbled down hastily by opportunistic scoundrels in the audience, or recalled afterwards by low-paid actors trying to make a quick buck.
Something had to happen in order for us to have most of Shakespeare’s work (we’re still missing a couple) in the literary canon: That’s where the First Folio comes in. John Heminges and Henry Condell, members of the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s acting company), decided they needed to produce a definitive edition to cement their colleague’s legacy and prevent others from pirating his work.
The publication of this book, technically known as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies — and now one of the most valuable antique books in circulation — is an important moment in literary history. It was the first collection of plays to be published in folio form: Plays, to the Elizabethans, were not serious literature. They’d probably raise an eyebrow if they saw American schoolchildren hard at work analyzing Romeo and Juliet, as we would if future generations were required to study the comic stylings of George Carlin (actually, that sounds like a good idea; can we get on that, Board of Education?) It’s also an important relic of the early days of printing, when technology and procedures were still being developed.
It is this book (or, rather, one of several surviving copies of it), that is currently touring the 50 states in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The tour, billed as “First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare” is sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library, which has 82 copies of the First Folio preserved in its collection. In August, it comes to Iowa. The University of Iowa Library is planning a number of events in conjunction with the volume’s display. These include lectures, film screenings, public readings, workshops, a chance to try out Gina Bloom’s educational game Play the Knave and demonstrations of contemporary Elizabethan life, such as uses of flowers and methods of bookmaking. Most importantly, of course, curious parties will get to peek into the past by seeing the First Folio itself.
The book is very important to scholars, as having access to a primary source is always valuable. But its influence on theatre practitioners — actors and directors — cannot be overstressed. In a sense, it really is “the book that gave us Shakespeare,” because without its existence, Shakespearean tragedy would probably not even be a genre. Consider the big four — Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello — often cited as the height of Shakespeare’s accomplishments. Of these four very popular tragedies, which are constantly being produced in theatres across the world, three of them suffered from multiple contradictory “bad quartos” and the fourth (Macbeth) had never been published prior to the Folio.
The problem of producing a Hamlet or a Lear is difficult enough as it stands, but without a definitive text to refer to it’s enough to make one throw up one’s hands and try something less complicated. Like Wicked. As for Macbeth, the horror fan in me cringes to imagine a world without what is quite possibly the creepiest story even set down on paper. The theatre world is daily enriched by having these plays, which have now been reprinted countless times, captured for the first time in 1623.
For those not involved in academia or theatrics, the events of “First Folio!” offer a lot of opportunities for fun and enlightenment. The events are family-friendly and many encourage children to participate. What better way to get ready for the Iowa City Book Festival in the City of Literature than to gather downtown and discover the legacy of a man so influential to the English language that he coined many of the words we use today, from “assassination” to “zany?”
James E. Trainor III could be bounded in a nutshell and count himself king of infinite space, but he’d much rather be in the studio teaching youth theatre at places such as Theatre Cedar Rapids and Northwest Junior High. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 204.