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Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (2016)

af Emma Smith

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811337,078 (3.3)2
This account of the 1623 edition of Shakespeare's collected plays provides an account of the its post-publication history, tracing the individual copies of the First Folio across time and space to understand what it has meant to its various owners and users.
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I never dreamed Shakespeare could be so off-putting.

The blurb on the back of my copy of this book concludes "This biography of a book traces the individual copies of the First Folio across time and space to understand what it has meant to its various owners and users."

To me, that implies actually listing and describing the copies and what is known of their history. Also comparing the copies -- and, no, they aren't all the same! At the time the First Folio was printed, type was set by hand, and when a mistake was noticed, it was often corrected -- but the already-printed sheets were used; reprinting was too costly. At most, a correction might be marked by hand -- but usually not. So if the first ten pulls of Hamlet's soliloquy had read, "To bed, or not to be," before someone noticed the extra "d," there would probably be a few copies of the First Folio which read "To bed...." These differences between copies are one of the major tools of modern analytical bibliography, which tries to figure out which readings came first and which came later, and from that to get closer to what Shakespeare originally wrote.

And that's even before the book came into the hands of its owners! Some of them might "illuminate" it; others would add their names and annotations and smart-alecky comments. (If it had been me in Jacobean London, I can imagine myself scribbling, "That Romeo and Juliet -- what a pair of twits! Why didn't they just leave town like anyone else with half a brain?")

So all copies of the Folio are individual, and by studying their individuality, we can learn a lot about Shakespeare's text. That's what I really wanted. It's not what I got. Oh, there are a few minor instances -- the story of Sir Edward Dering and his books, or of Henry Clay Folger and his obsession with collecting early Shakespeare printings. There are a few illustrations of various pages of the folio in different copies. But much too much of it is about things like how Folios taken to places like South Africa and New Zealand were used as tools of colonial aggression. I would maintain that, while colonial aggression certainly occurred, it was not the Folio that inflicted it, it was the colonists' attitude of "We have Shakespeare; what do you have to compare?" -- and then their refusal to listen to whatever the answer was.

All that might be forgivable -- after all, even if it's not really about the Folios, it's about Shakespeare. It might even interest the general public more than my admittedly detail-grubbing fascinations. But the work is also, frankly, pretty dull. That's not the content; it's the ponderous writing style. Very little happens in this book, and it happens very slowly. It's too bad -- I'd love to read the book the jacket blurb described. Unfortunately -- as with the First Folio itself, which was sold unbound -- this is a book that you can't judge by its cover. ( )
1 stem waltzmn | Mar 25, 2018 |
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This account of the 1623 edition of Shakespeare's collected plays provides an account of the its post-publication history, tracing the individual copies of the First Folio across time and space to understand what it has meant to its various owners and users.

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