Shakespeare First Folio under the microscope

30th January 2014

News, Student news, Alumni news

Wadham’s copy of the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio has been the subject of scrutiny by Shakespeare scholar, Dr Emma Smith (Hertford College).

The copy of Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, which was bequeathed to the College in 1775 by Richard Warner, is a collection of 36 plays in a book produced by actors, but clearly meant for an audience beyond actors and theatre-goers; namely a courtly audience.

According to Emma: “This is a book that’s been much read: lots of stains, marks and small burns (probably from strands of tobacco) are pretty consistent across all the plays. It also has a number of distinct hands annotating or marking it for different purposes.”

In the Rasmussen, E. & West, A., edition, The Shakespeare first folios: a descriptive catalogue (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) these features have been described, but Emma’s reading sheds new light on the marks and annotations.  

The men responsible for bringing this collection of plays together were John Heminge and Henry Condell, senior actors of the King's Men (formerly the Chamberlain's Men), an acting company for whom Shakespeare had been writing and acting since 1594. Shakespeare had died in 1616 after twenty years with the company so Heminge and Condell had a working relationship with Shakespeare that allows them to present the folio as a personal tribute. It also provided them with their material; the folio claimed that the plays were 'published according to the true originall copies', presumably in the possession of the actors. The texts printed from the folio have a range of provenances: some are reprinted from quartos (smaller format books), others apparently taken from authorial papers or theatrical promptbooks which have not survived. There are almost twenty plays by Shakespeare, including The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, which we would not have at all if it were not for the first folio.

Read Emma’s notes on Wadham’s copy-specific features below as you click through the pictures.

  • Wadham Image - ff1_0

    There are a range (although not very many) of commonplace marks, identifying lines or phrases of particular merit or potential for use elsewhere, probably by more than one reader. Iago's speech about good name (p.324) is marked with crosses.

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    In All's Well that Ends Well for example we can see a mark against the line 'I madam, with the swiftest wing of speed' (p.241), and, further, that the page must have been turned quickly because the imprint is blotted on the facing page.

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    A small number of verbal corrections: a neatly inserted 'not', missing in a line of Coriolanus (p.12).

  • Wadham Image - ff4_0

    Verbal corrections: correction to the opening page of The Tempest where the marginal annotation has been cropped in binding (p.1).

  • Wadham Image - ff5_0

    Verbal corrections: a correction to a Latin phrase in Titus Andronicus (p.32).

  • Wadham Image - ff6_0

    Verbal corrections: the word 'sixteen' in the Gravedigger's speech in Hamlet corrected to 'sexton' (p.278).

  • Wadham Image - ff7_0

    Verbal corrections: 'moving' changed to 'unmoving' in the margin of Othello (p.331).

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    Annotations to the text of 1 Henry IV to cut and reshape the play, apparently for performance. These include marks of excision (including of scabrous phrases such as 'where the gluttons dog licked his sores' (p.67).

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    The cutting of the character of the Vintner to be replaced by the Hostess (p.56).

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    The marginal note after 4.3 (p.68), 'Act Ends Here'. This is interesting since there is relatively little evidence of Folios being used with performance in mind.

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    Doodling and other apparently random marks, including capital letter R in some blank space in Much Ado (p.105).

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    A doodled initial in the cropped bottom margin of Richard II (p.41).

  • Wadham Image - ff13_0

    Page number corrections in the Tragedies section. The printed page numbers skip 100 pages at p.157 (Hamlet), which is incorrectly numbered 257.

  • Wadham Image - ff14_0

    The page number error continues 258 etc until the end of the book. The reader has not noticed 257 which is not corrected, but all the others thereafter are overwritten with the correct first digit.

  • Wadham Image - ff15_0

    A manuscript version of the missing final leaf, Cymbeline, is supplied. The lineation, spelling and use of italic script suggests it was transcribed from the second Folio (1632). Two notable features: one, it gives the page number, 399, as it would appear (incorrectly) in the First Folio. Secondly, the scribe omits a line from the final speech.