This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 21 July 2016.
Emma Smith’s study of Shakespeare’s First Folio sets out with the aim “to contextualise the material Shakespeare”. As such, it’s less a book about the material of Shakespeare than the material around Shakespeare, less about the text itself than about note-taking, performing, and doodling in the margins. Smith presents a thorough, cogent, and highly readable history of this landmark publication, and while her sense of structure is occasionally idiosyncratic, this is a definitive work of Shakespeare bibliography. It’s also a refreshingly materialist piece in a year of gaudy Shakespeare pageantry.
The book is organised into five chapters: ‘Owning’, ‘Reading’, ‘Decoding’, ‘Performing’, and ‘Perfecting’. The history is organised thematically rather than chronologically, and this is true even within the individual chapters. At first this can be a bit disorientating, as the first chapter lurches from eighteenth century book collectors, to the use of the Folio in the first ever National Lottery broadcast, then back to book collecting in the twentieth century. But once the reader has found their sea-legs it makes for quite an appealing style, governed by associative logic rather than strict chronology. It allows Smith to play the raconteur – she is ultimately less interested in Shakespeare’s Folio than the stories surrounding it, and the anecdotal approach brings them vividly to life. Colourful characters, bizarre misreadings, and facetious marginalia abound – an effective conversation-starter might be to ask readers what their favourite stories are.
Some of the best sections concern the efforts of librarians to get their hands on the Folio. Smith relays the story of the Bodleian Library’s first ever fundraising campaign, an attempt to purchase the First Folio from a student (the gloriously named Gladwyn Turbutt) in 1905. The observation that “the wheels of the university ground very slowly” in securing funds hits close to home, and the details of the 2012 ‘Sprint for Shakespeare‘ Campaign to preserve and digitise the Folio are a fascinating case of history repeating itself. But my favourite story is the tale of the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, the only public library to own a copy of the First Folio. Smith notes that “the dominant ownership mark… is the purple library stamp of the Birmingham Free Libraries Reference Department on several of its pages” as well as the charming detail of “the faint tread of a cat’s paws across a page of Henry VI Part 1″. Smith’s prose is clear and measured, but she takes a clear delight in relaying these minute observations, resulting in a book that feels richly detailed and slyly playful.
But while the stories told are many and varied, certain themes recur throughout. The spectre of capitalism haunts the First Folio, as the book is almost always a prop for the rich. The introduction details the first recorded purchase, by up-and-coming nobleman Sir Edward Dering, and from there we see the rise and fall of English aristocratic ownership, before American hyper-capitalists (most notably Edward Folger) move in, a battle Smith refers to as the “squirearchy” vs. the “squillionaires”. This commodity-fetishism repeatedly crops up, as do the book’s own inadequacies – printing errors abound, and Smith documents the various owners’ attempts to correct them. Smith also touches on female ownership – she points out that “attested female readers of Shakespeare’s First Folio seem more numerous than for many other early modern books” – but the theme feels a tad under-developed. One gets the feeling that the search for a “Feminist Folio” would be worth a book in its own right.
Smith’s prose is crisp and clear, but retains some of the annoyances of academic writing. Almost every chapter begins with Smith baldly telling us that ‘this chapter will explore x’, instead of getting on with exploring it already. There are also occasional typos and a variable layout design, with easily-missed slithers of the main text appearing beneath large photos, which interrupts the natural flow of the prose.
Nitpicks aside, Shakespeare’s First Folio is a marvellous bit of scholarship. Detailed without being dry, playful without being silly, it’s a well-researched, thoroughly balanced account of this ‘iconic’ book, and one which remains aware of its flaws. The Folio is riddled with typos, mistakes, dirt and marginalia. And that’s OK – more than that, it’s what makes it worth documenting. Smith concludes with the sobering reminder that “it is quite possible to over-value this most valuable of books”, and it’s a fitting message for this Year of Shakespeare. It’s the plays themselves that we love, and they are worth far more than the paper they are printed on.
‘Shakespeare’s First Folio’ is available to buy from Oxford University Press, RRP £19.99.