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Shakespeare & Beyond

“The book of his good acts”: Shakespeare’s First Folio onstage and on the page

Austin Tichenor as Richard Burbage
Austin Tichenor as Richard Burbage

Shakespeare’s First Folio celebrates its 400th anniversary in 2023, and I confess that most of what I know about its creation I learned from Lauren Gunderson’s play The Book of Will, the 2017 stage comedy that depicts the efforts of King’s Men actors John Heminges and Henry Condell to gather and publish all of Shakespeare’s plays in one extraordinary volume. Happily, I can now report that Shakespeare’s Book, Chris Laoutaris’s handsome and informative new nonfiction account of the same events, confirms that Gunderson got much of it right.

Gunderson takes the known facts of the Folio’s creation and spins dramatic (and comic) gold out of, as one critic described it, “one of the most crucial cultural acts in the history of Western civilization.” After the death of Shakespeare’s great leading man Richard Burbage, and after seeing how Shakespeare’s words were being mangled beyond recognition by actors using pirated and inaccurate texts, Heminges and Condell resolve to publish all of his plays in a single authoritative collection. But this is easier said than done, as the obstacles facing them are many and complicated: they must track down existing copies of all the scripts, not all of which they have the rights to; the large amount of high-quality paper required is expensive; and only one or two printers in London are large enough to take on a project of the Folio’s size. The Book of Will has the entertaining feel of a Jacobean heist movie wherein an elite squad of experts combine their skills to pull off an impossible mission, only in this case the unlikely comrades are a pair of aging actors, several rival poets and playwrights, assorted wives and mistresses, professional scrivener Ralph Crane, a syndicate of investors, a small army of compositors, and printers both scrupulous and un.

Gunderson uses the 1619 death of Burbage as the inciting incident of The Book of Will, the moment at which Heminges and Condell realize that Shakespeare’s words are disappearing along with the aging actors who first spoke them. Laoutaris confirms this is indeed what happened, and that in fact the national mourning for Burbage, the level of which surpassed not only the death of Shakespeare but that of King James’s wife Queen Anne, also presented for the Folio’s investors a commercial opportunity. Gunderson makes Burbage’s death an emotional catalyst for his friends, and Laoutaris speculates that same grief resonated on an even larger scale with the English public, shining a national “spotlight [on] the creative source behind Burbage’s own magnificence: Shakespeare’s genius as a playwright.”

That genius glows brightly in The Book of Will, which showcases many examples of why Shakespeare’s words were worth saving, and though Shakespeare is not a character, a fascinating portrait of him emerges from the recollections of the friends, rivals, and family members who knew him best. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (including such comedies as Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors), The Book of Will is very much a play about loss — not only the loss of friends, loved ones, and artistic geniuses, but the devastating potential loss of Shakespeare’s work if not successfully preserved. This gives the play the additional urgency of a beat-the-clock rescue mission, as the danger is very real that not just Shakespeare’s words, but his characters will disappear forever. Jessica Thebus, the director of The Book of Will’s Midwest premiere (in which I was privileged to play Richard Burbage, printer William Jaggard, and the Folio’s first purchaser Edward Dering), calls the Folio’s publication “a miracle,” because the play illustrates the many ways in which it might never have happened.

Gunderson’s play makes the case that without Heminges and Condell we might not hold Shakespeare in the esteem we do today. Giving them sole credit is an exaggeration, and Shakespeare’s Book explores in massive detail the many other people and factors that were instrumental in bringing the Folio into existence. Laoutaris’s research covers an enormous amount of ground — from the art and business of 17th-century printmaking to literary and typographical analysis, property records, European royal families, and constantly shifting political winds — in order to fully tell the story of the First Folio’s creation.

Gunderson necessarily fictionalizes aspects of the story; for instance, she compresses the four years between Burbage’s death and the Folio’s publication into two hours’ stage time, and makes certain characters strangers when in fact they would have been well-known to each other. Shakespeare’s Book clarifies the timeline and the complicated relationships amongst the parties involved (despite such novelistic flourishes as referring to Shakespeare as “frail and trembling” as he makes “a hasty addition to his will” just a month before his death). Laoutaris also persuasively argues what a “grandiloquent statement” and “a bold, gutsy, and daring initiative” it was to publish mere “commercial plays” in such an important and luxurious form as a Folio, an honor that had only been previously accorded to Ben Jonson’s plays in 1616. Laoutaris also describes the process behind changing the designation of Shakespeare’s dramatic output from “Plays” to “Works,” words we use interchangeably now but which carried important distinctions then. Surely this was the ground zero moment in which Shakespeare’s status began to be elevated from popular and crowd-pleasing to Important.

As part of its 400th anniversary celebration, the Folger commissioned Our Verse in Time to Come, a new play that explores the First Folio’s legacy in contemporary terms. In a Q&A on Shakespeare & Beyond, the two playwrights – Malik Work and Karen Ann Daniels, Director of Programming and Artistic Director, Folger Theatre – discuss how their new work “interrogates whose stories remain and whose role it is to ensure they survive,” explaining that “we have [the Folio] because a group of people decided it was worthy of saving and sharing.” They raise an excellent and important question: Who are our new Shakespeares, and where are the Hemingeses and Condells who will ensure their work is celebrated for the next 400 years?