The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World

BookofWilliamA few years after William Shakespeare’s death, his business partners, actors John Heminge and Henry Condell, approached the printer William Jaggard with a proposal that he publish a complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays. Some of Shakespeare’s plays had been printed individually in small editions called quartos, but Jaggard elected to print this collection in the larger folio format, and in 1623 the First Folio was born.  Nearly 400 years later, one of these Folios sold at Sotheby’s for 2.5 million pounds. Paul Collins’s entertaining new book, The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World explains how the First Folio became among the most sought-after prizes in the world of book collecting.

Collins’s book is divided, suitably enough, into five “acts,” each of which describes a different time or place in the story of the Folios. It was interesting to hear what sorts of people owned the Folios and how these books were treated—or mistreated—by their owners. Samuel Johnson’s edition, for example, contains greasy fingerprints and a ring that appears to be from a teacup. Collins notes, “I’m pretty sure that Samuel had a taste for gravy.” Folio 66 at the Folger Shakespeare Library seems to have been chewed by mice and possibly used to support a table. Some Folios, such as the Meisei Folio, are filled with annotations not unlike those you’d find in a university textbook.

Although the Folios are Collins’ main focus, he sometimes drifts into other fascinating, but related avenues. He writes of other editions that gained and lost popularity, of how Shakespeare’s plays have been performed at various times, of the history of London printing and publishing, and of the vagaries of copyright law. The opening “act” is peppered with descriptions of books that were published around the same time as the First Folio:

Take, for instance, Markham’s Maister-Peece—a 1616 horse-care manual whose advice for securing your steed’s loyalty includes fasting him for a couple of days and then smearing honey and oatmeal all over your sweaty chest. Advice like that succeeded so smashingly that within a year the Stationer’s Company made the author pledge, “That I Gervace Markham of London gent Do promise hereafter Never to write any more book or bookes to be printed, of the Deseases or cures of any Cattle, or Horse, Oxe, Cowe, Sheepe, Swine and Goates &c.”

Particularly interesting is the final act, which describes how the Japanese have embraced Shakespeare. This section includes one Japanese writer’s moving tribute to the power of literature to promote “mutual understanding and spiritual brotherhood” in the years just before World War II. But it also includes a more troubling passage by a Japanese writer who said that Western literature seemed less entertaining to the Japanese because

In the West, people’s minds are civilized, they do not want savage, superstitious, and barbaric entertainments from their novels. On the other hand, Asians only seek savage and superstitious entertainment from their novels. So for us Japanese, who are han-kai [half-civilized], Western novels seem to be less entertaining.

Troubling indeed, but fascinating to see how cultural imperialism can lead people to reject their own culture. And there are some wonderful examples here of how the Japanese have translated Shakespeare into their language and theatrical conventions, such as Shoyo’s decision to write the translation versions as Bunraku, an ancient Japanese theatrical form that was performed with puppets.

Like much popular nonfiction, The Book of William lacks footnotes or endnotes. The Further Reading section tops 20 pages and gives details on where Collins got much of his information, which is useful, but I strongly prefer real endnotes. (Footnotes are even better, but I know that’s probably too much to ask.) The book also lacks an index, which is not a devastating problem in such a short book, but it would have come in handy. These deficiencies limit this book’s usefulness as a work of reference or serious research, but, at only 243 pages, it serves as a nice introduction to the world of Shakespeare in print.

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9 Responses to The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World

  1. Rebecca Reid says:

    I thought it sounded great until you said there are no endnotes! That drives me nuts! This still sounds like a really interesting book. Thanks for the review.

  2. JaneGS says:

    Sounds so much like my kind of book that I added it to my cart at Amazon–the no endnotes is troubling, but I think I shall pursue it regardless. I heard that the First Folio divided the plays into tragedies, comedies/romances, and histories, and this stuck as the definitive way to classify S’s plays.

    I loved the part about Johnson and gravy and “Folio 66 at the Folger Shakespeare Library seems to have been chewed by mice and possibly used to support a table” makes me smile–I’m not much of a collector myself but still!

  3. Nymeth says:

    This sounds so interesting! But yes, it always puts me off a bit when non-fiction has to endnotes. Though like you, I like footnotes best of all.

  4. Teresa says:

    Rebecca Reid: This is an interesting book. I think Collins is going for a more journalistic style, and it works fine when he’s talking about folios he looked at or people he interviewed, but the lack of notes is more of a problem when it comes to the historical material. The extensive Further Reading section does nearly make up for the lack of endnotes.

    JaneGS: I’m not one to leave my books pristine either, but I at least make an effort not to smear them with gravy! I hope you do enjoy this one–it is fascinating.

    Nymeth: I don’t entirely understand the trend not to have endnotes (or footnotes), but I wish it would stop. I do think the Further Reading section makes it clear that Collins did his homework, so I wouldn’t discount the information.

  5. Dorothy W. says:

    That’s odd not to have an index and notes. But this does sound like a great book, and I’m sure the Further Reading section is useful.

    • Teresa says:

      Dorothy: I see a lot of popular nonfiction without notes this days. I think some publishers believe that notes intimidate the non-scholarly reader, but I think responses here are a pretty good indication that readers like them. And I’m guessing not including an index is a cost-cutting measure as professional indexers do costs money. If publishers insist on not including notes, they should include a Further Reading section like this one because it was much more detailed than just a list of books, which is all I’ve seen in some books.

  6. serena says:

    This sounds fascinating…I’m headed to good reads to put this on the TBR list. Thanks for the great review.

  7. In Maryland says:

    I greatly enjoyed this book, and found it fascinating. But it is not a “scholarly” book – it’s a pretty “easy read” and the lack of notes and index makes it usefulness for research pretty limited, although for anyone at all familiar with the subject it is not terribly difficult to spot, in the further reading list, the likely source of most of his non-first hand information. But I think this was aimed at a general audience and succeeds admirably in making the subject absorbing. But, if you are at all interested in Shakespeare, it’s a most enjoyable read and even the tangential discussions are informative for the non-specialist. For instance, I keep wondering why there are so many plays of the Jacobean period that we know existed, but are not extant. The great London fire … duh!

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