July 21, 2008
A short while ago, a guy strolled into the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., which is one of the, or the, preeminent repository of Shakespearean stuff. He wanted to know if the First Folio he was carrying was the real item. As it happens, it was; it was a volume that had been stolen 10 years ago from the University of Durham in England. The dude is currently a guest of the state in the UK while they sort out the story.
The First Folio is an edition of the collected works of Shakespeare, plus some other plays. That the First Folio exists at all is unusually good luck; that we have so many copies, doubly so. Much of the work of other Elizabethan playwrights has vanished, since their work was either never written down, or written down and not printed, or printed but lost. As Bill Bryson points out in his Shakespeare Lite study:
Only about 230 plays survive from the period of Shakespeare’s life, of which the First Folio represents some 15 percent, so Heminges and Condell saved for the world not only half the plays of William Shakespeare, but an appreciable portion of all Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. The First Folio was printed after Shakespeare’s death, but it was assembled by people who had worked with him. This gives you an idea of what we might have had:
To aid recollection, they had much valuable material to work with—-prompt books, foul papers (as rough drafts or original copies were known) in Shakespeare’s own hand, and the company’s own fair copies.To which he adds "all now lost." There had been previous printings of Shakespeare’s plays; some editions were good, but others ... not so much. The latter, for example, might be "versions set down from memory (often very bad memory, it seems) by fellow actors or scribes employed to attend a play and create as good a transcription as they could manage."
Aware of these less-than-stellar editions, the compilers of the First Folio sought to create definitive ("True Originall") versions of the plays. Had they not done so, we would likely not know about 18 plays of Shakeaspeare's for which we have no other source.
And yet. It was not just Elizabethan spelling that seemed to lend itself to only the most casual discipline; printing was not subject to the most rigorous QA. Bryson explains:
In fact, the First Folio was a decidedly erratic piece of work.What these guys needed, of course, was the services of a good editor.
Even to an inexpert eye its typographical curiosities are striking. Stray words appear in odd places—-a large and eminently superfluous "THE" stands near the bottom of page 38, for instance—-page numbering is wildly inconsistent, and there are many notable misprints. In one section, pages 81 and 82 appear twice, but pages 77-78, 101-108, and 157-256 don’t appear at all. In Much Ado About Nothing the lines of Dogberry and Verges abrupty cease being prefixed by the characters’ names and instead become prefixed by "Will" and "Richard," the names of the actors who took the parts in the original production.
The plays are sometimes divided into acts and scenes but sometimes not; in Hamlet the practice of scene division is abaondoned halfway through. Character lists are sometimes at the front of plays, sometimes at the back, and sometimes missing altogether. Stage directions are sometimes comprehensive and at other times almost entirely absent. A crucial line of dialog in King Lear is preceded by the abbreviated character name "Cor.," but it is impossible to know whether "Cor." refers to Cornwall or Cordelia. Either one works, but each gives a differ shading to the play. The issue has troubled directors ever since.