Creating Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 47

We likely wouldn’t have half of Shakespeare’s plays without the First Folio of 1623. Imagine a world without Macbeth, Twelfth Night, or Julius Caesar. Our guest on this episode of Shakespeare Unlimited is Emma Smith, a professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford and the author of The Making of the First Folio. She authenticated the First Folio that was recently discovered in Scotland.

In her book, she offers an intimate, step-by-step examination of how the First Folio was conceived, how Shakespeare’s plays were gathered, how the rights for them were obtained, how the book was laid out, and – most vividly – how it was assembled and printed. Emma Smith is interviewed by Neva Grant.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © May 3, 2016. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “This Precious Book,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Nick Moorbath at Evolution Studios in Oxford and from the News Operations Staff at NPR in Washington, DC.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.  

The Folger is known, maybe more than anything else, for our remarkable collection of First Folios, copies of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623. The Folger’s collection is the largest in the world, with 82 copies, and so we have a rare attachment to this book, especially in 2016, when we are touring the First Folios to all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, to honor Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death.  

Much of the scholarship around the First Folio focuses on its role in preserving Shakespeare for posterity and in her new book, The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio, Emma Smith certainly does that. But she does something different, too, because this is not a book about the First Folio’s legacy. Instead, it’s about the First Folio’s creation. In her book, Dr. Smith, a professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford, offers an intimate, step-by-step examination of how the First Folio was conceived, how Shakespeare’s plays were gathered, how the rights for them were obtained, how the book was laid out, and, most vividly, how it was assembled and printed.  

By taking the time to look at the First Folio as a physical object, Dr. Smith provides an important window into the human story behind the process of creating books in 17th century England. She shares that with us now in a podcast we call "This Precious Book."  Emma Smith is interviewed by Neva Grant.


NEVA GRANT: There’s so many people who absolutely love Shakespeare, but who might not still understand why the First Folio is so important, so tell us why it is.

EMMA SMITH: The first reason I think the First Folio is absolutely vital is it gives us half of Shakespeare’s works. We wouldn’t have 18 of the plays, almost certainly, if they hadn’t been gathered together at this point. So we’ve got these plays, 36-ish, there’s a bit of argument about how many plays Shakespeare actually wrote, but if Shakespeare had just written the plays that had been published as individual editions during his lifetime, I think he would look a much less substantial playwright. We wouldn’t have Macbeth, we wouldn’t have Twelfth Night, we wouldn’t have Julius Caesar. You know all these great works would almost certainly have been lost. Because, it’s an amazing statistic about the theater in this period, that probably we have got only about one fifth of the plays that were actually written and performed in the theater during Shakespeare’s time.  

GRANT: So who were the men? These were colleagues of William Shakespeare, who saw the plays that had not yet been published and said, you know, we’re going to collect these, we’re going to put them together and we should publish these plays. Who were these guys?

SMITH: Well, I think what happens, is that two groups of people come together. We’ve got the people on the publishing side, the men who understand the business of printing, the business of marketing books, and they're Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, so they’re the publishers, and we don’t quite know how, but they get into a partnership really with two of the actors of the King’s Men, the company with which Shakespeare’s been associated throughout his life, and they’ve outlived him.

John Heminge and Henry Condell, they’re mentioned in Shakespeare’s will, where he leaves them money to buy mourning rings to remember him. And some critics think that the gathering together of his works is their real act of mourning for him, that’s how they remember him, that’s how they sort of carry out the wishes that are implicit in his will.

GRANT: And what do you think about that? Do you think that was the only reason? I mean surely there had to be commercial reasons to do this as well.

SMITH: Well, there has to be some commercial reason. This is, I think, a really interesting aspect of this book. I think we have tended to assume that the world must have been absolutely desperate for more Shakespeare plays. But I think if we actually look at Shakespeare’s reputation, after his death, he dies in 1616, we're talking seven years later. I think we can see in our own time that that’s quite a difficult period for an artist’s reputation. It’s not the wave of nostalgia and affection that happens immediately after their death, and it’s not the canonization when they become classic. It’s a sort of, you know, they look old-fashioned, rather than vintage or classic. So, I think that if we look at Shakespeare’s place in the print marketplace, and if we look at his place in the repertoire of the King’s Men, by the early 1620s he looks like yesterday’s man.  

So, my feeling is, not everybody agrees with this, that it was actually quite a commercial risk for those publishers to bring out this great big book, very expensive book, and I think it took them probably a number of years to recoup the investment they made in it. They actually tried to create the market for Shakespeare by publishing this book, rather than published it to meet the market demand already.

GRANT: And you know, there’s some suggestion of that in the letter that John Heminge and Henry Condell write at the beginning of the book which seems sort of paeon to Shakespeare, but part sales pitch, right?

SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. "Whatever you do, buy," they say. You know, read it, "but buy it first."  

GRANT: Do they actually say that?

SMITH: Yes. Yeah, that’s their quotations from the letter, so they’re really preoccupied with getting sales. It’s interesting to wonder whether they’re thinking about browsers. We don’t know how much the worse are bookstore browsers in this period, but there’s obviously some feeling that people might look at the book and not bother to shell out. So they’re really concerned that people should buy the book and then, you know, it doesn’t matter whether they like it or not, really. What they need to do is back it up with their wallets.

GRANT: That’s great, and what else was in that letter that they wrote at the beginning of the First Folio?

SMITH: They say something which has absolutely captivated editors and readers ever since. They say that previously published plays by Shakespeare were "surreptitious" and stolen, and that these are now reprinted whole and "perfect of their limbs," as he intended them. So what they do is to denigrate all those plays which had been published in this small format, the quarto format, beforehand, and say, Here you’ve got them in the perfect form. And editors have spent centuries trying to work out whether they’re actually telling the truth.

GRANT: They’re essentially saying, this is the definitive Shakespeare?

SMITH: Yeah, exactly. So they say it’s complete, that may be partly to sell it. And they also say, this to me does suggest that it’s a sales pitch, you know how annoying it is to get one series of a TV show or something, you have to buy the package, well, you’ve already got some of them, but the only way to get the new ones is to rebuy the ones you’ve already got. I think that they’re trying to say, if you’re a keen play buyer in this period, you’ve probably bought half of these already, but these are better. And I think it is part of that sales pitch. I think editors have taken it too seriously, because they also have this idea that Shakespeare never blotted a line. What kind of a writer would that be?

GRANT: You’re making it sound like the only thing missing is a toll-free number, you know?

SMITH: I think that’s absolutely right, yes.

GRANT: As you just alluded, this was, of course, to be not only the definitive collected works of Shakespeare, but also the works in toto, which, of course, means that they weren’t only putting out plays that had never been published before, they were also having to seek the rights for plays that had been published before.

SMITH: Absolutely. And for some of those plays, obviously getting the rights from other publishers was difficult. Particularly, we know that Troilus and Cressida, it had been published in 1609, was a play which it was almost impossible for them to get the rights to. So they had actually already printed the catalog page, which tells you how many plays and what their titles are, which doesn’t have Troilus and Cressida on it, when somehow those negotiations must have had a breakthrough, and they do get the rights to it and they include the play at the last minute.  

GRANT: Yeah, I think that some people might actually be surprised to learn that the whole sort of infrastructure for... was it called "copyright" at the time, or was there a different word for it? I mean it just seems so highly developed for a culture where literacy wouldn’t have been so widespread at that time.

SMITH: Well, certainly we can see the rights of publishers developing during this period. They’re mostly managed by the stationers, a sort of professional group who want to regulate their own affairs, because of course they don’t want external regulation, that’s very familiar to us. So they manage their own affairs.  

Publishers are supposed to write in the Stationers’ Register their rights to particular titles and that register is referred to, if there’s any dispute about them. And there are lots of occasions ,when the Stationers' Company confiscates books that shouldn’t have been printed or that infringe someone else’s right or burn those books. So yes, Edward Blount has got to get the rights up from those people who’ve already published them.

GRANT: You know, as we’re talking about this, I’m thinking to myself, didn’t Shakespeare own the rights to his own plays?

SMITH: It’s really fascinating, isn’t it? No, he was a writer for hire. He writes a play script, which becomes the property of the theater company, and they use it and also adapt it, license it as they wish.

GRANT: Let’s talk now about the printshop where the First Folio was made. Who were the printers?

SMITH: The printshop is in the Barbican district of London and the business is owned by William Jaggard, and, increasingly, his son Isaac, who’s in his early 20s, is taking over. William actually has gone blind and he’s getting increasingly infirm. And the Jaggards probably employ two or three printers, so they’re men who set type and operate the printing press, and they also take on an apprentice in 1623.

GRANT: Weren’t they in fact the official printers for London? I’m not even sure what that means, but, you know, it sounds like a big deal.

SMITH: Exactly, so they had the contract, if you like, for official proclamations from the City of London. So they’re not usually books, they’re more like notices. That was one of their regular money spinners and they also printed playbills for the theaters to advertise theatrical performances. That was probably their connection with John Heminge and Henry Condell, those King’s Men actors.

GRANT: You know, it’s funny, because earlier in the conversation, you referred to the letter that appears at the beginning of the First Folio, saying, you know, other quartos that you may have seen, or other copies of certain plays that you may have seen, were published under shady circumstances. Couldn’t the Jaggard printshop, in fact, have been responsible for having acquired plays, essentially without permission? I mean, weren’t they part of the problem, in effect?

SMITH: Well, it’s a really great question. Yeah, the Jaggards had been the printers of a group of Shakespeare plays, and, in fact, plays not by Shakespeare, but that may have been thought to have been by him, in 1619 that we call the Pavier quartos. Thomas Pavier was the publisher, sort of mastermind, behind this, and the Jaggards were employed to print these texts. We don’t know whether these were pirated texts. We don’t quite know whether they were trying to test the water for a new sort of serial edition of Shakespeare, perhaps paving the way for the First Folio. But, yeah, absolutely the Jaggards were poachers turned gamekeepers, or whatever the phrase would be.

GRANT: So why do you think they were picked?

SMITH: That’s a really good question. Well, they had this connection with the playing company, because of the playbill contract that they had, so they may have been known to the actors, and often these things go by who you know. We don’t know that John and Henry Condell had any experience of the publishing industry, really, and that may mean that they were swayed by some quite other reason, of thinking these would be the men to help us.

GRANT: Now am I correct that the year that the First Folio was published, 1623, right?

SMITH: Yeah.

GRANT: And it’s, actually, you know, we say First Folio, but of course it was hundreds of volumes that were all printed in the same year, 1623?

SMITH: We don’t know what the print run of the First Folio was, but probably, conservatively, about 700 or 750. So, it’s a huge technical endeavor, because you have to print some of the pages and then break up the type and reset the type and print the other pages. So there must have been stacks of paper absolutely everywhere in the Jaggards' workshop, particularly because the whole process took them from the end of 1622 right through a 12-month period to 1623. Obviously, they kept interrupting it to do other jobs, they had their City of London jobs, which were probably rushed jobs, but yeah, it must have been a big thing.  

One of the things I love about copies of the First Folio is that sometimes you see dirty fingermarks, printer’s fingermarks, or the mark of a hair that’s caught between the type and the press, and you do get a sense, suddenly, of these human beings, working in what must have been pretty noisy and quite stressful conditions.

GRANT: Well, I was going to ask, 700 or so volumes, was that considered just a massive run? You know, would someone looking on that on sort of order or a script of some kind say, oh my gosh, you know, we can’t deal with that, that’s a huge amount for this printshop?

SMITH: It certainly is a bigger scale of work than the Jaggards have ever done, and that may be why it takes them so long to do it. It requires a big investment of money in the paper. So, in some ways, the Jaggards, if they can carry this off, if they can pull off this big job, they’re in the best place in the supply chain, because they get paid, no matter whether the book sells or not, they just get paid for the job. Everybody else who is in the supply chain after that is dependent, really, on sales to make money for themselves.

GRANT: Paint a bit more of a picture for us of just what the scene would have been like in the shop. How is it set up? How are they making up these pages? They’ve got these metal letters that they’re having to put into ink and to press into a paddle, which was I guess called a galley, that’s where we get the name galley, and then that galley gets pressed into this paper. Just walk us through the process, if you could.

SMITH: Yeah, so the workers in the printshop, the first thing they need to do is to work out from the manuscript paper, the text, the copy, how many pages it’s going to take and divide it up, because, of course, they don’t set the pages, you know, page one first, page two next. They’re working on pieces of paper which are folded four times to be a gathering or a quire bunched up. If you’ve ever tried to do this on a photocopier, make a booklet function, you know, working out which order the pages have got to go in, it’s really, really complicated. So they have to work that out first, that’s called casting off.  

And then each of the compositors, they’re the people who set the type, they stand in front of these cases of type, and you mentioned "galley," which is a word we’ve still got, we’ve also got "upper case" and "lower case," so the upper cases were the capital letters and the lower cases the small letters.

GRANT: If I may just interrupt, yeah, these were the literal cases where the letters were kept, the metal letters all sort of, you know, organized carefully in their little cases.  

SMITH: Organized pretty carefully, it was one of the big jobs of a compositor, which was to be able to undo type once it had been used, and put it back in the right box, because of course, they’re doing it very, very quickly, you know, like a touch typist.  

So then they have to set the lines of type and they’re setting them backwards as it were, as kind of mirror writing, if you can imagine that, and they have to make sure that the type letters, the metal letters, fill out the length of the line, using blank spaces if necessary, so that the type doesn’t move under the pressure of the printing press.  

And then they transfer these set lines into what’s called a forme, which is the sort of the page, with all the type set up for the lines. That’s inked and a piece of paper is placed on the printing press, and there’s a weight or a sort of circular pressure, sometimes a lever, used to bring the paper and the inked type together to make the impression. And then they do it all again.

GRANT: Right, and at every stage of the process, there are opportunities for mistakes, which, of course, in many of the printed volumes, you can see. Walk us through some of that. Certainly there are typographical errors, so describe some of the different mistakes that we see.

SMITH: Yeah, there are lots of different mistakes, from sort of technical fails, like a hair gets in the way, or the type moves a little bit during the printing, so that the line isn’t completely straight. There are things about the casting off process, that process of working out how much space on a printed page handwritten script will need, and sometimes that means that pages of the First Folio are very, very cramped. They certainly think, oh my God, we’ve got to get so much in, you know, we’ve got to really compress, abbreviate words. And then there are typographical errors and they are in two kinds, I think. One is, in some ways, a manual error, where a letter is turned the wrong way up, and sometimes there are errors which we think are misreading, a difficulty in reading or interpreting the handwriting, and therefore garbling it or making some kind of problem or a crux out of that.

GRANT: I think you might have just alluded to this briefly, there’s the final page of Much Ado About Nothing, which really sort of broadcasts the problem they would have with casting off, can you walk us through what that looked like?

SMITH: The last page of Much Ado About Nothing is great, you know how sometimes you feel at the end of a comedy, it’s all sort of speeding up, it’s all got to get wrapped up quite quickly, even if you’re watching it? Well, you’ve got the strange typographical equivalent of that on the page of the First Folio, that whoever’s setting that thinks, we haven’t really left enough space for this.  

They are looking, actually quite intelligently, about how they can lose some extraneous material. So there’s a stage direction, and we know this from the quarto text, one of those individual play texts that were published earlier. There’s a stage direction which says "Enter the Prince and Claudio," and then the line of dialogue after that is, "Here comes the Prince and Claudio." So it’s quite a reasonable and sort of smart way to save some space to think, actually, we don’t need that stage direction, because it’s said within the dialogue.  

So you can see some rapid kind of reassessment as that page is going through preparation in order to be able to squeeze everything, and then we get the last Finis, the end, Latin for the end, on the same line as the very last line of text. You can feel, we made it, we got it just under the wire.

GRANT: That is interesting. It suggests that there was a significant intelligence that was brought to this. I mean, they weren’t just doing repetitive rote work, they had to think through this.

SMITH: Yeah, absolutely, and I think sometimes we’ve underestimated the skill and the decisionmaking that that professional job required. They were highly skilled workers and we can see that because we see that this new guy, the apprentice, is hopeless. Poor guy, he just fumbles everything, and they’re on him like a ton of bricks. The pages he does are being corrected and checked, and his work’s being checked. And because that’s so full of errors, you realize how good they are, what their sort of accuracy rate is, and also, how they are trying to make the best book that they can, given the kind of contingencies of their situation.

GRANT: My heart goes out to that poor, feckless apprentice who is memorialized in your book, and clearly there were documents that sort of noted what was going on. This poor guy, who’s probably, you know, a teenager, who is just learning the ropes. What did he know, that he was working on, the plays that were going to live on forever?

SMITH: It’s amazing, isn’t it? And it’s amazing that such immortality as he has, is through his mistakes in typesetting, mostly, Shakespeare’s tragedies. I think it’s really fascinating to imagine what his life must have been like. So he’s apprenticed, in his late teens. So he lives with the Jaggards, you know, he isn’t paid a salary. He’s entirely dependent on them, really, he’s a sort of tied apprentice in their house. He does make a lot of mistakes, but actually his fellow workers also make some mistakes at a lower level. But he must of felt that everything he did was scrutinized. It’s really, really sort of fascinating to think about him.

GRANT: We know his name, right?

SMITH: He’s called John Leason. We don’t know what happens to him, because we don’t hear anything more about him, so either he decided that printing was not for him, or you know, perhaps he was one of the people who died young. We don’t know anything else about him.

GRANT: That’s fascinating, you know. It does make me want to ask you about some of the typographical errors that have sort of worked their way into academic debates about what Shakespeare’s original intent was in a given line or scene. Are there certain words where we still aren’t sure, because an error occurred at some point in the line, where we’re still not 100 percent sure of Shakespeare’s original intent.  

SMITH: I think there are a number of those. Maybe the most famous one is the description of the death of Falstaff, where the Folio text gives us something like "a table of green fields," and nobody knows what that means, and editors have tried to amend it to make more sense of it. Alexander Pope in the 18th century thought that this had been some kind of prop requirement, that a table needed to be brought in or something. People have been very, very inventive about what that might have meant, but we still don’t really know.

GRANT: What do we know about the people who would’ve bought this book? I mean, presumably they would have been wealthy, and they would have been educated. Would they have bought it as a status symbol?

SMITH: Sure, so I think it was like a luxury item, not so much like a car, maybe, but like a new smartphone, or that kind of thing. So something which marks out that you’ve got disposable income, but nothing like the millions that it is now.

GRANT: The Folger Library is, of course, named for Henry Clay Folger, and his wife Emily, very famous collectors of First Folios. In fact, the library has the largest collection of First Folios in the world, 82. And there’s a theory that one of the reasons they wanted to amass so many First Folios, was it would allow them to kind of ferret out or divine the "true text of Shakespeare," and I should probably put that in quotes, because even that is an idea that scholars dispute. But what do you think about that?

SMITH: Certainly Mrs. Folger’s MA dissertation was on "The True Text of Shakespeare," I think that was the title. And certainly they anticipated that there was something of value in having multiple copies of what looked like the same book, and that there would be those minor differences, and that they would tell us something. Now, quite what they thought those minor differences would tell us, I think, is quite mysterious. And it’s also true that most of the people in the period when the Folgers were collecting in the early decades of the 20th century, most of the people who were interested in the First Folio text, were interested in it because they thought it had coded messages about the authorship of the plays. I don’t know that they believed that Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare, but I think that they thought that was a real question for scholarship to answer, and that close analysis of the First Folios and of numerous copies would somehow get us closer to that.

GRANT: And your sense of it?

SMITH: Of whether Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare?  

GRANT: No, no, your sense of...

SMITH: Why they bought them?

GRANT: Yeah, your sense of whether that could ever work, I mean whether that’s even sort of a road that even a scholar should try to go down? It just seems like almost sort of a bottomless rabbit hole of sorts, that there’s just no way of really ever knowing.

SMITH: I think that’s right, and I think what the real work that the Folgers made possible was done by a man called Charlton Hinman at the Folger Shakespeare Library in the 1950s, and he did that work, minute work of comparing multiple copies. For example, he looked at pieces of type, individual pieces of type, and where they occurred, and how they showed that they were getting more worn or more damaged and from that, he was able to try and work out a schedule for the order in which plays were printed. It was amazing kind of work to do by eye. And he also identified the places where ongoing corrections had been made, and some pages were uncorrected, and the majority were corrected, so he was able to look at the extent to which the Folio underwent a sort of proofreading process in the process of being published. So he did a lot of work there, but what that made us see, I think, was that the minute differences and the details in the First Folio are all about the way the printing worked, and the way that different individuals were part of putting the book together.   

GRANT: You know, this is such a wonderful place to end our conversation, because, as we’ve been talking, what is so clear is what a collaborative effort this book was, which of course, you allude to in your own book. Like any good play, this is the collected work of dozens of people, the people who backed it, the people who sort of painstakingly got all the rights, so that all the plays, or most of the plays, could be put in the same volume, then, of course, the printers, and it’s a collaboration.

SMITH: It completely is and I think that doesn’t take anything away from Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s genius, but it does, perhaps there’s a bit of comfort for the rest of us that, you know, it takes a lot of people to bring out a great work of literature. It’s not just the product of one brilliant mind.  

GRANT: This has been a wonderful conversation. Tthanks so much for your time.

SMITH: Thanks.


WITMORE: Emma Smith is a professor of Shakespeare studies in the faculty of English language and literature at Oxford. Her book The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio was published in 2016 by the Bodleian Library. She was interviewed by Neva Grant.

"This Precious Book" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Nick Moorbath at Evolution Studios in Oxford and from the news operations staff at NPR in Washington, DC.  

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library, home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare’s First Folios. You can find more about the Folger at our website For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.