Shakespeare's First Folio, a biography of a vital book, falls short

A biography of Shakespeare's First Folio is small cause for celebration on the 400th anniversary of the bard's death, writes Stuart Kelly

Shakespeares contribution to literature would have been immeasurably poorer but for the work of the editors of the First Folio. Picture: Hulton/Getty

Shakespeare’s First Folio by Emma Smith | Oxford University Press, £19.99

I still remember the visceral shudder of the thrill I had at university when I realised that my beloved Complete Works Of Shakespeare was categorically not the complete works of Shakespeare. The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death falls this week, and with it will come the usual folderols: that the work was really written by the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon or a Klingon called Wil’yam Sheq’spir; that he was Catholic or Protestant or a Freemason; that some of the Sonnets are to his gay lover, or black lover, or anyone but his wife.

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All these biographical fancies are intriguing enough – and read Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait Of Mr WH to see the whole Shakespeare paranoia dealt with elegantly – but there is still the business of words on a page. Emma Smith’s book comes as a welcome corrective to the fascination with Shakespeare the man, as it is the “biography” of something far more interesting: a book.

The book in question is Shakespeare’s First Folio, published seven years after his death. Smith’s work is actually a kind of family biography of all the Folios that still exist (and one that doesn’t: Edwin Forrest’s copy, damaged by fire and now preserved in a glass sarcophagus like a Joseph Cornell box). It traces the First Folio’s movement from the hands of aristocrats to Victorian industrialists to American collectors to academic institutions, and is frequently engaging on the heat of the debates surrounding possession of a First Folio.

It covers ownership, the marks left by readers (and in the case of two First Folios, cat prints left by unreading moggies), the use of it by those who thought it must have a secret pattern – not just cranks, but serious cryptographers – its use as an acting text and the ways in which these frequently tattered, sometimes maliciously altered books aspire to being the “perfect” Shakespeare text.

Were it not for two colleagues, John Heminge and Henry Condell, we would only have about half of Shakespeare. A small detour is necessary. The editors of the First Folio are at pains to say that previous readers of Shakespeare “were abused with diverse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious impostors”. This refers to the single, quarto plays published in his lifetime. So, for example, Hamlet exists as a text called Q1 of 1603, sometimes called a “bad quarto”, a possibly authorised Q2 of 1604 and the Folio (F1) text in 1623. Q1 is 1,600 lines shorter than Q2 and Q2 is 77 lines shorter than F1, though that doesn’t begin to describe all the changes. Q1 also calls Polonius Corambis and the most famous speech begins “To be or not to be, I there’s the point / To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:” At university we remembered the differences as bad quarto, bootleg copy, good quarto, single, folio, album; which greatly underestimates the complexity of the whole issue, but is as good a rule of thumb as any.

Without the Folio we wouldn’t have Macbeth, The Tempest, Twelfth Night or Anthony And Cleopatra, to name but four. Some of the First Folios published omitted Troilus And Cressida. All of them omitted The Two Noble Kinsmen and Pericles, Prince Of Tyre. It shaped the way we read Shakespeare. There are three categories – comedies, histories and tragedies – which don’t always equate with our expectations. Why is Cymbeline, where the villains die and the couple reunites, a tragedy, while The Winter’s Tale, which features the death of a young son because of a father’s lunacy, a comedy?

Smith, who is more of a bibliographer than a bibliophile it seems, doesn’t even address these questions that would fascinate anyone interested in Shakespeare, preferring instead a litany of auction house prices and the lack of unbound editions of F1. Although she berates collectors for caring more about the object than the content, she is strikingly similar to them. The exclusive focus on the First Folio is equally restrictive. If one is going to read the earliest versions of Shakespeare, then to forgo looking at the second edition, F2, especially the censored Valladolid Folio in Spain, on the basis of the year of publication, seems obtuse. And what about the Third, which includes works I doubt many readers have seen but were attributed to Shakespeare: Locrine, The Puritan Widow, The History Of Thomas Lord Cromwell, The London Prodigal and others – was there just an attempt to cash in, or something more significant? And what of the “Charles II Library” plays – Fair Em The Miller’s Daughter Of Manchester, Mucedorus and The Merry Devil Of Edmonton, labelled “Shakespeare Volume I”?

There was a story to be told here. It could have been full of intrigue, magic, mystery, wonder and actually have overturned expectations. Instead we have a sour trudge through what we always knew: the idea of a “perfect copy” of Shakespeare is bunkum. This book, to bring back Wilde, knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing”.