The Austin Chronicle

Shakespeare's First Folio

Why the first collection of the Bard's plays is such a big deal and cause to celebrate on his 400th death anniversary

By Robert Faires, March 18, 2016, Arts

So you're dead. (Sorry to break the news to you this way.)

To be honest, we don't really know what did you in, but it was a big year for typhus, so that's a reasonable culprit, as are plague, smallpox, a stroke, and, sad to say, syphilis. (Plus, there's a rumor about you catching a fever after a Hangover-worthy bender with some old pals that came through town. Probably bogus, but people will talk ....)

You were only 52, though you achieved a lot by that age and were savvy enough about real estate to have bought four houses in your hometown (including the burg's second-biggest crib) and more than 100 acres of land – plenty to pass on to your wife of 34 years and your two daughters and their families. (No male heir to carry on the line, regrettably, as your only son – twin to the younger daughter – died at age 11.)

But you weren't simply successful in the, excuse the term, hamlet where you grew up. You made quite the name for yourself in the Big City – a red-carpet type on the showbiz scene, getting thumbs-ups from royals, dashing off hit after hit. Well, get this: Two of your best buds in the theatre company you were in (you put 'em in your will, so we know you were tight), think so highly of you that they're going to publish a book of your plays, and I mean a huge book – like, everything you wrote alone, plus some things you worked on with other guys, and half of them have never seen print before. People will have a chance to have and keep some of your best work that otherwise would have vanished. How about that, Will Shakespeare?

When you're puzzling over all the fuss about the so-called First Folio – i.e., the earliest compilation of plays by Shakespeare – start there: Without it, the world could have lost 18 of the dramas we associate with the Bard. We're talking English-class staples Julius Caesar, The Tempest, and Macbeth; comedy gold standards Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and The Taming of the Shrew; and thorny beauties Measure for Measure, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter's Tale, among others. Thirteen of the 18 plays written in the last 14 years of Shakespeare's career would be gone – all of the romances, most of the late tragedies, the last history – as if the flood of plays from his pen abruptly slowed to a trickle after his 35th birthday.

That we know Will kept penning plays almost to the end is thanks to his compadres in the King's Men, Henry Condell and John Heminge. They assembled the three dozen scripts and oversaw their publication, and it couldn't have been easy. In 17th century England, printers might put out one play to rake in a quick shilling, but collections of plays? It just wasn't done. The one time a book of plays was printed was the year Shakespeare died, and it was a collection of Ben Jonson's plays that Jonson had had printed himself. Even so, that was just nine plays. Heminge and Condell wanted to print four times that many, a collection running 900 pages. And it wasn't as though the scripts were all typed and waiting to be set. They had to be compiled from the plays already printed (which might have errors), promptbooks used in staging the plays (published and unpublished), recopied versions of original manuscripts, and the "foul papers" by Shakespeare (his handwritten drafts). How long this took isn't known – months, surely – but we do know it took 18 months for printer Isaac Jaggard and five typesetters to complete the First Folio's print run of 750 copies. And Heminge and Condell felt so confident about the finished book to state in the preface that where Shakespeare's fans had been earlier "abused with diverse stolne, and surreptitious copies," here were the Bard's works "cur'd, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he conceived them."

That Condell and Heminge produced the First Folio with the long view in mind is evident enough in its size, but the cost reinforces the idea that this wasn't about making a killing in the bookstalls. A fresh copy of the First Folio would've set you back a pound – $200 now – and that was just for the unbound paper. You had to shell out for the covers and binding separately. If you were buying this, you were going to keep it.

And people did. Amazingly, 233 of the 750 original copies still exist. The University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center has three, all on view in its "Shakespeare in Print and Performance" exhibit through May 29. The Folger Shakespeare Library owns 82 – the most of any institution – and for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death this year, it's touring a copy to one spot in each state in the Union. In ours, it's Texas A&M University in College Station, where it's on view through April 3. TAMU and UT are hosting many special programs along with the exhibits, some of which are listed here.

HRC's "Shakespeare in Print and Performance"

"Shakespeare in Print and Performance" runs through May 29 at the Harry Ransom Center, 21st & Guadalupe. Special programs include lectures by scholars and artists and performances of Shakespeare's work. For more information, visit

Peter Bay on Shakespeare and Music
Thu., March 24, 7pm
The Austin Symphony music director examines classical music and the Bard, focusing on interpretations of Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, and Prokofiev, along with Bernstein's adaptation, West Side Story.

Douglas S. Bruster on Discoveries in Shakespeare
Tue., March 29, 4pm
The UT-Austin English professor relates recent discoveries about the playwright's life and career, including his work as a collaborator on a variety of plays and poems.

Staged Reading: Antony and Cleopatra
Thu., April 7, 7pm
UT-Austin Department of Theatre & Dance faculty members Franchelle Dorn (Medea) and Robert Ramirez headline a staged reading of Shakespeare's late tragedy.

Nigel Cliff: The Shakespeare Riots
Thu., April 14, 7pm
The author of The Shakespeare Riots details the 1849 feud between English and American Shakespearean actors that led to the Astor Place Riot in which 25 people died.

James Loehlin: Exploring Shakespeare Through Performance
Tue., April 19, 4pm
The UT-Austin English professor and director of the Shakespeare at Winedale program demonstrates the interpretive options of the playwright's work with scenes performed by students in the 2016 spring class.

Andrew Carlson: Textual Difference and Performance in Shakespeare
Tue., April 26, 4pm
The UT-Austin theatre history and criticism professor discusses how textual differences between folio and quarto texts influence performance choices with a performance of the same scene interpreted two ways.

AFS Shakespeare on Film Series

The Austin Film Society supplements the HRC's Shakespeare exhibit with screenings of films adapted from his plays. All AFS screenings through April 26 are on Thursdays, 7:30pm, at 6226 Middle Fiskville. May screenings are at the Ransom Center. For a full schedule, visit

March 24: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
Austrian stage impresario Max Reinhardt created a lavish screen production for Warner Bros., with some big stars that you might not associate with Shakespeare, including James Cagney (as Bottom), Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, and a young Mickey Rooney as Puck.

March 31: Henry V (1944)
Thu., March 31, 7:30pm
With World War II raging, Laurence Olivier delivered this Technicolor take on the Bard's history that proved to be both a vigorous screen adaptation of Shakespeare and an inspiring piece of pro-British propaganda.

April 7: Romeo & Juliet (1968)
At the height of the counterculture Sixties, Franco Zeffirelli made Shakespeare cool, with this gorgeous – and accessible – adaptation starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey as the "star-crossed lovers" of Verona.

April 14: Macbeth (1971)
Roman Polanski followed Rosemary's Baby with another horror show full of witches and demons, the Bard's Scottish Play, and the results are equally disturbing (and bloodier).

Additional films include a pair of Hamlets: Michael Almereyda's, starring Ethan Hawke (April 21) and Laurence Olivier's (May 5); Julie Taymor's cinematic versions of The Tempest (April 28) and Titus Andronicus (May 19); the King Lear-inspired backstage drama The Dresser (May 10); and the critic-slaying romp Theatre of Blood, with Vincent Price (May 26).

Texas A&M's "First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare"

As part of the Folger Shakespeare Library's U.S. tour of its First Folio copies, Texas A&M is hosting the exhibition "First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare" through April 3 at the J. Wayne Stark Galleries, Memorial Student Center, in College Station, and also hosting special events, some of which involve Austinites. They're listed below. For more information, visit

Douglas S. Bruster
Tue., March 22, 4pm, Liberal Arts and Arts & Humanities Bldg., Rm. 453, 349 Spence St., College Station
The UT-Austin English professor relates recent discoveries about the playwright's life and career.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Mon., March 28, 7pm, Grand Stafford Theatre, 106 S. Main St., Bryan
Austin Shakespeare stages scenes from the comedy using Original Pronunciation, with actors Nancy Eyermann, Keith Paxton, Arielle Davidson, and Kristofer Adkins.

Der Bestrafte Brudermord
Fri., April 1, 7pm, Amity Bldg., 300 W. 26th, Bryan
The Hidden Room Theatre graces Aggieland with its staging of the 1710 German version of Hamlet performed with puppets.

Sat., April 2, 7pm, Amity Bldg., 300 W. 26th, Bryan
Present Company tackles Shakespeare's monumental tragedy in a production based on the First Folio text.

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