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Why should we care about Shakespeare’s First Folio?

  Our 2023 Sam Wanamaker Fellow, Professor Emma Smith discusses the importance of the First Folio on its 400th anniversary

8 minute read

Why should we care about Shakespeare’s First Folio? That is the question which leading Shakespeare scholar Professor Emma Smith, our 2023 Sam Wanamaker Fellow (an award in recognition of an academic’s contribution to Shakespeare Studies), asks in her lecture, celebrating 400 years since the publication of the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays. Our Head of Research, Dr Will Tosh, was on hand to talk to Emma about the significance of this collection, its history and her passion for researching it.

An engraving of a picture of a man

Emma Smith presents Folio 400: Sam Wanamaker Fellowship Lecture on 23 April 2023.

This year marks 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio, but it’s not that long since we marked the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016. What makes this bibliographic anniversary significant or different?

I think what’s so important about this anniversary is actually – sparing his feelings – that Shakespeare is dead. Shakespeare is out of the picture by 1623, so the anniversary of the First Folio is one way of marking the start of the ‘post-Shakespeare’ Shakespeare. This marks the point that the work was handed over to us as theatre-makers, readers, scholars, creatives of all kinds, and the author is not there to say ‘well, this is what I meant’ or ‘this is how we’re going to perform it’. It’s not clear if Shakespeare was ever in that role but this is the moment when ‘we’ – broadly defined – take over Shakespeare.

I know elsewhere you’ve described the First Folio, as it exists today, as a fetish as much as a book, and I can hear in your first answer answer the beginnings of how that might have happened. Can you tell us a bit more about that process of fetishisation?

This book was not published as the First Folio, it was called Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. Like Simone de Beauvoir’s brilliant formulation about becoming, not being born, a woman, this was not born the First Folio, it became it. And it became it in part through a kind of scholarly and theatrical rediscovery. The 1623 edition came to acquire an authoritative reputation which later editions didn’t have, and as an artefact it benefitted from the expansion of luxury consumerism fuelled by money from the slave trade. In the second half of the eighteenth-century new wealth stimulated luxury goods markets in Wedgwood china, book collection, and wonderful country houses. So, there was a confluence of two streams – one which I think is economic and one which I think is more scholarly and theatrical – at the end of the 18th century which combined to make this book highly covetable and super-expensive. Once it became super-expensive, it became an object that said something about the abilities and success of the person who owned it, as much as anything to do with the contents. It becomes more and more unlikely – vanishingly unlikely – that anybody will consult it as a book; and in lots of rare book collections, it’s become an item that people are nervous about. On the one hand they’re very proud of it, but on the other hand, the sense that someone might come and turn the pages is quite frightening! I think we’re a bit out of kilter about whether this is a book, a museum object,  a relic, or, as you say, a fetish.

A book lies open on its title page, with an engraving of a picture of a man

The titlepage of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, 1623 (Munro First Folio).

How do you see the process of First Folio veneration – if that’s the right word –  evolving in the years to come?

One thing that’s really interesting to think about is the way the First Folio was brought together in 1622-23. It’s much less a confident, monumentalising canonising of Shakespeare, and more a speculative and contingent of gathering of what’s available. We’re always saying, ‘oh without this book we wouldn’t have Macbeth, we wouldn’t have Julius Caesar’, but the play I’ve become really fascinated by is Timon of Athens. Loads of people, even people who love Shakespeare, might not care so much about Timon, or they might think, ‘if we had to sacrifice one, alright, let’s do Timon of Athens.’ We know that Timon of Athens comes into the book really as an afterthought, because the editors think they can’t get the rights to Troilus and Cressida. And we also know that if that hadn’t happened – if Timon of Athens hadn’t come in the book – not only would we not have the play, but we also wouldn’t even know we didn’t have it, because there are no references to it anywhere else. That contingency is really liberating to me because it makes this seem a much more open and pragmatic collection rather than the ‘ultimate monument’ to Shakespeare. So, I hope in the future that we can align First Folio studies with the kind of criticism which is interested in de-pedestaling Shakespeare and thinking about the contingences by which his works have come to be so culturally significant. So, I think that’s one direction for critics. I think for the rare book trade and the world of special collections, we’re at a point of reckoning about provenance histories and what those histories tell us. We need to face up to them and think about the forms of cultural privilege in the UK that have these dark parts in their histories.

As a scholar, Emma, what was your journey towards making the First Folio an object of study?

I had a sense that there was a First Folio discourse, which in the past was very bibliographic and focussed on the world of the book, and the way books were put together – quite technical things about printing house and binding. There’s a completely amazing bible of First Folio studies by Charlton Hinman, which everybody refers to, called The Printing and the Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare. It’s an almost completely incomprehensible volume, not least because it almost never mentions the title of a play. It thinks about the book entirely as pages that stuff is happening to. I wanted to try and get my head around that and think how a bibliographic approach could be married with the extraordinary critical vitality of Shakespeare studies. I wanted to think about the First Folio in ways which weren’t so narrowly bibliographic, and that were more aligned with things that we all are trying to understand better. Most Folio scholars in the past would not have thought that there was a way to think about the First Folio and race; it seemed to be innocent of all those kinds of critical concerns – and therefore actually quite boring. I wanted to see if it could speak in some more interrogative ways with Shakespeare criticism.

A person sits on a sofa in front of a bookshelf

Emma Smith: ‘I wanted to think about the First Folio in ways which weren’t so narrowly bibliographic, and that were more aligned with things that we all are trying to understand better.’

You’ve already hinted at some of the ways in which the Folio speaks in ways which might unsettle or de-stabilise Shakespeare. What are the other things that the Folio has ‘spoken about’ in the process of your research that have surprised you?

The Folio is not the original Shakespeare – that status doesn’t really exist. The Folio is a freezeframe of different scripts at different points in their life. The contingency of how those things have survived has given us some plays which are often a bit more surprising than the edited versions. Often, they are a little less cut and dried in terms of stage directions, or what’s actually happening in the action. There are some textual cruxes that scholars are looking at again because critical work about discourses of ‘fairness’ and ‘blackness’ has completely changed the way you would gloss or think about those words. And it’s hard to think about an edition that would wilfully change Hyman’s wonderful queer marriage [between Ganymede/Rosalind and Orlando] at the end of As You Like It, where the Folio is very clear that what’s happening is that ‘his’ hand is being joined with ‘his’.  Given that these are two male actors, and that both characters present in their own way as male, and male pronouns are being used, we have a a text that gives us a much less heteronormative ending than most modern editions have chosen to allow. I’m hesitant about the language of ‘going back’, as if here preserved is some extraordinary truth about these plays, but I am interested in the way the Folio can historically predate a lot of the work that’s been done to establish Shakespeare’s text, and it can undercut that in some interesting ways.

And finally: thinking again about this idea of ‘Folio as fetish’, if you were to choose another book to make a fetish of, what would it be?

It’s a really interesting question, I’ve never quite thought about it before. Part of my work on books and book history and the way we invest in rare books has made me really quite committed to de-fetishising, and it’s interesting that the First Folio probably is the one completely fetishised secular book. In the 19th century, the Folio was a must-have if you were a squillionaire in the new services industries in the US, but so was the Gutenberg Bible Now, the Gutenberg Bible has kind of fallen away a bit, and Shakespeare has taken up that position of ultimate fetish.


Emma Smith presents Folio 400: Sam Wanamaker Fellowship Lecture in our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on 23 April 2023.