Teasing apart the meaning of Shakespeare’s First Folio

A new exhibit at Sterling Memorial Library explores the changing perceptions — in prestige and value — of the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s plays.

The publishers of the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s plays had to come up with a sales marketing strategy — or what passed for one in 1623.

Half of the Shakespeare First Folio comprised 18 plays that had never been printed before. But the other half of the collection was already available in print in less-expensive quarto formats (much like pamphlets) that could be purchased individually. How could its publishers persuade Shakespeare fans to spend substantially more for the whole collection in a larger format?

With a convincing sales pitch, of course. In their preface to the publication, the creators, John Heminge and Henry Condell, two actors in Shakespeare’s company, claimed that these works were the most perfect and complete versions, while readers had previously been “abused with diverse stolen and surreptitious copies” of the plays, copies that were “maimed” and “deformed.”

There’s this effort to treat the First Folio as the best possible text,” said Eve Houghton, a Ph.D. candidate in the Yale Department of English. “And in a way, that has continued to bolster the First Folio’s reputation today.”

The preface pitch is one of many interesting facets of the First Folio highlighted in a new exhibit in the Sterling Memorial Library celebrating the 400th anniversary of its publication. Curated by Houghton and displayed in the library’s new Hanke Exhibition Gallery, the exhibit is centered around an original copy of the folio — with the famous engraved portrait of Shakespeare on the frontispiece — on loan from the Elizabethan Club of Yale University.

A librarian for the club, Houghton combed the rare book collection kept in the club’s 1911 bank vault for materials that would complement the First Folio and present it in a broader context, one that seeks to explain the changing perceptions of its value and the growth in its prestige over time.

In the 17th century, no one really cared about the First Folio,” she said. “Caring about it is basically a 20th-century thing.”

In fact, the creators published three later editions of the folio — in 1632, 1663, and 1685. All three are on display in the exhibit. By the Fourth Folio, the publishers were including plays that weren’t even written by Shakespeare.

That speaks to the desire to expand the Shakespeare canon, to get people to buy more books by presenting more ‘content,’ as we might think of it now,” Houghton said. “It might seem surprising to us, but in the late 17th century, these later folios were the ones people wanted.”

In fact, she noted, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University rather famously sold off their First Folio in 1664 after acquiring a copy of the Third Folio, which contained additional plays attributed to Shakespeare.

Somewhat surprisingly, the First Folio’s extraordinary worth today — one sold at auction for just under $10 million several years ago — is not related to scarcity. More than 200 copies are known to have survived, according to the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., which has 82 copies. Yale’s Beinecke Library has a copy in its collection as well.

Why, then, is it considered so valuable? A primary reason is that it preserved “The Tempest,” “Macbeth,” “As You Like It,” and many other plays considered to be “absolutely essential to the Shakespeare canon,” Houghton said.

The table of contents from a later edition of the folio contains notable Shakespeare works.
The table of contents from a later edition of the folio contains notable Shakespeare works, including “The Tempest,” “Macbeth,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo provided by Eve Houghton)

It was also the first book to divide Shakespeare’s works by genre: comedies, histories, and tragedies.

But Houghton also connects its status “to its cultural value, the sense that this is an emblem of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is at the center of English literary heritage.”

Because the folio was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death, it’s not known whether he would have wanted the plays to be published or if he worked on the project at all. It was not at all common for playwrights to publish their works at the time, especially in the expensive folio format. Indeed, when the English dramatist Ben Jonson, a contemporary and friend of Shakespeare, published his complete works in 1616 he “was roundly mocked.”

It was considered very pretentious to come out with a complete work of plays because plays were popular entertainment, they weren’t literary,” Houghton said. “It had a status closer to screenwriting now.”

The copy of Jonson’s works on display in the exhibit is signed by the author himself.

Yale’s Elizabethan Club came to own these works — as well as one of the most significant collections of early Shakespeare quartos in the country — through its founder, Alexander Smith Cochran, the heir to a carpet manufacturing fortune. An 1896 Yale graduate, Cochran was a prolific collector of Shakespearean works for a brief period, and donated them all, along with a 19th-century clubhouse located at the center of the Yale campus, when he founded the Elizabethan Club in 1911. The independent club continues to buy rare books through its endowment.

The opening reception for the First Folio exhibit, which will feature remarks by Houghton, will be held at the gallery at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28. It will be followed by a symposium on Friday that echoes the exhibit’s title, “Shakespeare For All Time?,” co-sponsored by the Elizabethan Club and Yale’s Department of English.

The day-long symposium will feature papers by a range of academics who are re-evaluating and reassessing the First Folio’s legacy 400 years later. Houghton worked with Catherine Nicholson, a professor of English, to arrange the symposium.

The book’s value as a collectible, its use as an emblem of cultural dominance or prestige, its actual and imagined relationship to Shakespeare, and its importance to scholars are entangled in all sorts of ways,” said Nicholson, a member of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Teasing them apart is part of the work of reading the First Folio today.”

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