Book Review: Shakespeare’s First Folio

Shakespeare’s First Folio:  Four Centuries Of An Iconic Book, by Emma Smith

In reading this book I was struck by the way that this could have been so much better of a book than what it was had the author come at this task with a different perspective.  There are interesting parts of books here, but the author just is not able to put them together and her own focus on certain aspects of class and property tend to drag the book down with leftist politicking.  When the author is able to focus on things that are present within reality and not her own fevered imagination, there are interesting elements to the book such as the author’s desire to look at provenance and the way in which the transfer of a book from a used book of little value to a collectible incentivizes theft and fraud, and how the author discusses the way in which these things occur.  When a book has been around for centuries there are different ways to look at it, and this book chooses to look at the First Folio as an artifact that people do things with more than as a book to be read and savored and enjoyed.  So long as you can relate and appreciate that, this book can be appreciated itself.

This book is about 350 pages long or so and is divided into five chapters.  The book begins with acknowledgements, a note on the texts, as well as a list of illustrations, and then begins with an introduction that discusses the earliest known purchase of the First Folio and what that means in terms of the original customers of the book and how long it took for the First Folio to be an item that was collected apart from the audience of those who liked to read plays and watch them performed in the theater.  After that the author spends a lot of time discussing the ownership of the First Folio over the course of the last four centuries (1).  Following this comes a look at how the book was read through the marks that were left in owned copies and various marginalia (2).  This is then followed by a look at how some readers of Shakespeare’s plays sought to use them as a code that had to be solved (3).  After this comes a glance at the performance of Shakespeare’s plays and how it often varied from what the First Folio showed (4).  Finally, the author looks at editing and the perfection of the book over time (5), after which there is a conclusion and then a bibliography and index.

Is the First Folio worth the fuss it receives?  It’s hard to tell.  It is the first book which collects Shakespeare’s plays together and views them as a collected body of work.  And even though there are definitely errors in the text it is striking to note just how early Shakespeare’s plays were given the treatment that Ben Johnson’s were as being viewed in a literary fashion, which was a novelty at the time.  Yet aside from the question of proofreading, the author shows little interest in the text of the First Folio itself.  What does it mean that the book didn’t include Shakespeare’s poetry, especially his sonnets, or that it was missing Pericles and the Two Noble Kinsmen, as well as the late and lamented Cardenio?  The author appears less interested in exploring such matters than she is in writing about the hands in which the First Folio met and the way that people bought it and traded it and how it reflected the relative economic position of England and the United States over the course of the 20th century, and even Japan towards the end of the 20th century.  The author appears to be as interested, if not more, in the First Folio as a status good as she is in its value as a book to be read and enjoyed.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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