I am in the process of reading an amazing book by a prize-winning American author named Paul Collins. This book, published in 2009, is called THE BOOK OF WILLIAM. It is one of the best books I have ever read, and I would call it to the attention of anyone with intellectual passions, because this book is not merely about Shakespeare’s First Folio. It is a masterful exemplar of intellectual dedication, told through unpretentious anecdotes which are fascinating in themselves, but point to more, if you wish to follow up and look for more. I am having a great time reading it.
The main thrust of this book is that there were three “rescues” of Shakespeare’s works, one performed by the two remaining members of his theater company, The Kings Men; one by a dedicated scholar, though unsuccessful writer, Lewis Theobald; and two money-hungry printers, Jacob Tonson and Robert Walker. Without them, Shakespeare might have been lost forever, or neglected and forgotten.
Here is the post I wrote for my husband’s blog, Pater Familias, but I am also posting it here in full on mine.
A SURPRISING ACCOUNT OF THE SUCCESS OF A VERY FAMOUS BOOK
The book in question is the First Folio of 1623 of the plays of William Shakespeare.Now very valuable, very much sought after. . . to say the very least!
But, wait, in his book The Book of William, Paul Collins gives a brief history of the assemblageand publication of this book of plays by the two remaining members of the core of Shakespeare's theater troupe, the men who had acted with him and for him for twenty years. Collins doesn't spend too much time on this event, as he is more interested in what happened next: to the First Folio, to other Folios, and to the reputation of Will Shakespeare. Several events followed which turned out to have greater consequence than anyone could have expected.
The First Folio was followed by a second, and a third, etc., each one newly edited as the years went by in order for the publisher to maintain his publishing rights to the works. (Such a thing as a copyright law did not exist until early in the 18th Century.) Each editor of a Folio left his own personal imprint on the book. By the 18th Century, if not earlier, Shakespeare's plays were going out of style, and considered a relic of a previous era. However, three things occurred to bring Shakespeare's work back into the sun.
Many people are aware that the famous actor David Garrick idolized Shakespeare and, by his emotional and impassioned performances, helped to renew the public's interest in his plays. What is less well known is that Samuel Johnson, a friend of Garrick's, had been his school master. Johnson's view of Shakespeare was later set out in the Preface to Johnson's edition of Shakespeare's plays, and what he said was revolutionary. Johnson claimed that Shakespeare had changed the world of the theater forever by refusing to write simple love stories that featured untarnished heroes. Instead, he wrote of complex characters living in situationsfar from simple, and in a world in which love was merely one feature.
One further event or, rather, series of events, is credited by Collins as placing Shakespeare's works in the company of the classic authors of antiquity. Simply put, the great poet Alexander Pope was given HIS chance to edit Shakespeare's works, and he did it carelessly, basing his choices upon his own personal taste, with little to no care for establishing and preserving the actual texts. Lewis Theobald was a less gifted writer than Pope, but a much better and more dedicated scholar. And he became wildly indignant when he perceived the desecration, as he saw it, that Pope had inflicted upon Shakespeare's plays. And so he, in turn, wrote an entire book, pointing out, over and over Pope's errors, but of omission and commission. This bookwas called Shakespeare Restored. As Collins points out, this book not only ruined the sale value of all the unsold copies of Pope's edition, but also pointed out to scholars and to the wealthy collectors of books that these were important works of literature, these plays, deserving of study and the kind of fidelity to the author that could be found only in the First Folio.
Finally, Shakespeare's works were also put forward to the class of reader who could not afford to buy a full collection of plays. This was not a deliberate attempt to educate the masses. This was brought about by a price war! The book seller and printer Jacob Tonson considered Shakespeare his private property until another printer, Robert Walker by name, decided to challenge him on that score, and began printing each play separately, with no frills, and charging only fourpence a play. Tonson was livid and tried threats of legal action (empty), bribery (not enough), and sabotage of the presses (abortive). Tonson, though he lost money with each play he sold, countered by selling his individual plays for thruppence a play. Indeed, Tonson put out 10,000 copies of each play. Together these two men flooded London with Shakespeare's works, making Shakespeare available to everyone who could read. Shakespeare awareness was renewed in London and it is hoped will never be endangered again. But that remains to be seen, I’m afraid.
Please go to The New Play Exhange for copies of my trilogy, The Lives of Shakespeare.
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