Anyone interested in books knows of the First Folio, the collection officially titled Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, which was published in London in 1623. But they may not have seen a copy. More often seen is the image of the author on the Folio’s title page. Some people will also have looked at the ‘Catalogue of all the Severall Comedies, Histories and Tragedies’, as the contents page is headed, and read Ben Jonson’s tribute ‘To the Memory of My Beloved, the AUTHOR Master William Shakespeare and what he hath left us’. What he left us, Jonson claims, made his friend and rival the greatest of European dramatists.
Few individuals, however, will have read through the unmodernised text of this volume, with its thirty-six plays and nine hundred desk-requiring, double-column pages. The Folio is a great present to posterity, yet it is now a part of bibliographical history: an antique volume usually found in a specialist library. Most of us could not define exactly what a folio is. I have glimpsed a quarto in a museum, but have never seen any of the ‘foul papers’ that editors invoke. Readers generally skip the editorial niceties and get to the text – a modernised text, furnished with act, scene and line numbers, and with pictures of performances we have never seen, the verse distinguished from the prose and difficult words glossed. Variant text lies at the bottom of the page for a second reading – if there is one.
Yet the Folio’s fame is deserved. Had there never been an Authorised Version of the Bible, that other big book of James I’s reign, there were nonetheless plenty of other Bibles. But without the Folio, we would not have The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and fourteen