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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt: "Shakespeare's Book" by Chris Laoutaris

Shakespeare's Book
Shakespeare's Book

The First Folio is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published seven years after his death; without it, 18 of his plays might have been lost to history. But there was another book claiming to be a collection of Shakespeare’s plays that appeared a few years beforehand, as Chris Laoutaris explains in Shakespeare’s Book: The Story Behind the First Folio and the Making of Shakespeare.

This so-called “False Folio” is the focus of the excerpt below, which comes from Chapter 3, “The ‘Pavier-Jaggard Quartos’: A Shakespearean Printing Mystery.”

Chris Laoutaris is a biographer, historian, poet, Shakespeare scholar, and Associate Professor at The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. He is the Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Shakespeare Beyond Borders Alliance and the Co-Founder of the EQUALityShakespeare (EQUALS) initiative. He is also the author of Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. Shakespeare’s Book: The Story Behind the First Folio and the Making of Shakespeare is out now from Pegasus Books.


Imagine you are a book browser in 1619. An avid theatregoer, reader and collector of plays, you are drawn to a particularly intriguing volume of eleven bound dramas in the shop identified by the sign of the Half-Eagle and Key in London’s Barbican. At first you think this is much like any other sammelband or ‘nonce’ collection, a gathering of individually printed miscellaneous plays bound together in one volume. But you have a discerning eye and notice something strange.

All but one of these plays appear to be by William Shakespeare, with one by his contemporary Thomas Heywood, but you are sure that at least a couple of the plays identified as being by Shakespeare were in fact written by other playwrights. You notice too that despite the fact that most of these playbooks bear different dates, all bar one of their title pages look alike, boasting the same printer’s device: an emblematic rose and gillyflower within an elaborate flower-and-scroll bestrewn ornamental border, engraved with the Welsh motto ‘HEB DDIEV HEB DDIM’, ‘Without God, Without Anything’. You are sure you have seen the device before, because it belongs to other books printed by the owner-managers of the shop in which you are standing: the outlet attached to the printing house of father and son entrepreneurial team William and Isaac Jaggard. Isaac watches you with suspicion as you leaf through the collection. There is something unsettling about his stare. His father, fifty-two-year-old William, who has been losing his sight for the last seven years and relies ever more on his son’s support with managing the printing business, listens intently as you ask Isaac about the collection. They both seem relieved when, after a brief exchange of pleasantries, you simply pay for the volume and leave the shop without further comment. But you cannot quite shake off the feeling that something is amiss.

What you have purchased would come to be known collectively as the ‘Pavier Quartos’, or more sensationally as the ‘False Folio’; both rather misleading labels, and so they will be referred to here as the ‘Pavier-Jaggard Quartos’ in acknowledgement of the involvement of the two businesses that collaborated in their creation. When this group of plays was initially rediscovered it was thought that it consisted of nine individual editions published in quarto, a quarto being a small single volume containing one or only a few works (so not, in fact, a Folio of any kind), with one of these containing two plays. These were The Whole Contention between the Two Famous Houses, Lancaster and York, with no date on its title page; Pericles, dated 1619; A Yorkshire Tragedy, dated 1619; The Merchant of Venice, dated 1600; The Merry Wives of Windsor, dated 1619; King Lear, dated 1608; Henry V, dated 1608; The Life of Sir John Oldcastle, dated 1600; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dated 1600. The Whole Contention is in fact two plays printed together continuously, what came to be called Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3 in the First Folio. A Yorkshire Tragedy and The Life of Sir John Oldcastle are attributed to Shakespeare in this collection but are now believed not to have been written by him. As more recent scholarship has shown, Thomas Heywood’s play, A Woman Killed with Kindness, was also included in some bindings of this collection when it originally went on sale. Five of the playbooks attributed to Shakespeare indicated on their title pages that they were ‘printed for T.P.’, the initials of the stationer Thomas Pavier who would become known among Shakespeare scholars as a ‘notorious piratical publisher’.

In 1908 the bibliographer and early First Folio scholar W.W. Greg made a startling announcement. Having examined the watermarks and the provenance of the paper stocks used in the printing of this peculiar series of playbooks, originally discovered by fellow bibliographer Alfred W. Pollard in two sammelbands, he concluded that they had all been issued in the same year, 1619, and by the same press: that of William and Isaac Jaggard. Furthermore, some of these plays had false imprints, with The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Henry V and The Life of Sir John Oldcastle all deceptively dated. He also drew attention to the fact that The Whole Contention and Pericles had continuous signatures – the letters and numbers that appeared at the bottom of the pages in many early printed books, primarily as guides to pressworkers, but which functioned much as page numbers. This indicated that this set of dramatic works had originally been intended to form one large volume of consecutively paginated plays, but that the publisher or printer had, for some unknown reason, changed his mind during the printing process and instead devised a devilish scheme that would make them look as if they were individual playbooks that had been printed at different times. Since Pavier’s initials were emblazoned on most of these works, Greg blamed the stationer for instigating this ‘rather shady bit of business’, for ‘falsifying the dates’ on the plays with the intention of hoodwinking the King’s Men who, he imagined, must have ‘conceived their rights to have been invaded’. Because these plays had been hiding their collective printing by a single press – since William Jaggard’s name was not actually included on any of the works’ imprints – the ‘Pavier-Jaggard Quartos’ became an infamous part of Shakespeare’s legacy. Subsequently they were related directly to the printing history of the First Folio because they looked like the very first, but aborted, attempt to create a ‘Shakespeare collection’ in one volume. Early scholars were quick to associate Heminges and Condell’s complaint, in their epistle to the reader that they printed with the Folio in 1623, with the ‘Pavier-Jaggard Quartos’:

[W]e pray you, do not envy his [Shakespeare’s] Friends, the office of their care, and pain, to have collected and published them; and so to have published them, as where (before) you were abused with diverse stolen, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters, that exposed them: even those, are now offered to your view cured, and perfect of their limbs, and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he [Shakespeare] conceived them.

Heminges and Condell claim that the world had been ‘abused’ with fraudulent copies of the plays that had been issued in unauthorised piratical editions. This turns the First Folio into a rescue operation, restoring Shakespeare’s works to some kind of original, pure state. As will become clear, their insistence that the Folio offers perfected works ‘absolute’ as Shakespeare ‘conceived them’ is straining the truth. But what is significant here is the suggestion that the First Folio was, somehow, righting an earlier wrong that had ‘abused’ both Shakespeare’s works and reputation through the illicit printing of ‘stolen’ plays in inadequate, ‘maimed, and deformed’ versions.

But if this was the case, then why and how did William and Isaac Jaggard become two of the primary syndicate members of the First Folio shortly after the printing of the ‘Pavier-Jaggard Quartos’? Were the plays issued collaboratively by Pavier and the Jaggards really illegal in the first place and was Pavier the mastermind behind the ‘False Folio’ and the unscrupulous, piratical publisher that early bibliographers and historians of the First Folio made him out to be?

Excerpted from Shakespeare’s Book: The Story Behind the First Folio and the Making of Shakespeare by Dr. Chris Laoutaris. Published by Pegasus Books, April 2023.


Don’t miss our interview with the author on the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast.

Publishing Shakespeare's First Folio, with Chris Laoutaris
Shakespeare Unlimited

Publishing Shakespeare's First Folio, with Chris Laoutaris


We talk with Chris Laoutaris about his new book, an in-depth look at the First Folio, its creation, and its legacy.

More about the First Folio

Learn more about the history of this 1623 book, and what it contains, and why it’s so important.

Shakespeare First Folio

Shakespeare First Folio