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The significance of folios: The story of Shakespeare’s remarkable rise to global prominence begins with his promotion in the 17th century in a series of large, handsome, folio volumes. “Folio” was the name of the largest books in this period, books made of sheets of paper folded only once to make pages. Due to their size, cost, and careful printing, folios were the 17th century’s most prestigious format. They marked their author and contents as important.
Throughout Shakespeare’s time as a practicing playwright, English plays were not published in this size: drama was not seen as valuable enough to warrant either publication or purchase in folio. Instead, plays were typically published in individual quarto editions: books made from sheets of paper folded 2 times to make smaller pages. Quartos were cheaper and more portable than folios; their size and cheaper bindings signaled that their contents were less important.
A revolutionary folio: In 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, Ben Jonson upended this trend with the publication of his plays, poems, and court entertainments in a folio volume. At a time when playwrights and authors as a group lacked copyright – legal ownership of their works – Jonson’s folio Workes made revolutionary and unprecedented claims for the importance of drama, playwrights, and an author’s stake in his own printed legacy.
Looking back, we can see that Jonson’s landmark publication helped create modern ideas of authorship and intellectual property. These concepts would be crucial for how later ages would view Shakespeare: as a person whose chosen words possessed signal importance. At the moment of Jonson’s publication, some readers mocked the way Jonson dignified his “plays” with the weighty title “Workes ” and his assertion of metaphorical ownership over his writings. (Literal ownership of plays fell to the companies that bought them or the publishers who produced book versions of them. Acting companies and publishers might change the content of the plays at will.) However, the theatrical world – Shakespeare’s associates included – took notice of Jonson’s folio Workes. Jonson’s book marked drama as possessing literary value, value identified with the person of the author, not just with the collective work of the acting company for whom he wrote.
Shakespeare’s Folios: Jonson’s folio Workes proved inspirational to Shakespeare’s friends and business partners, John Heminge and Henry Condell. In 1623, 7 years after Shakespeare’s death, they published the book we now know as the First Folio, preserving 36 of Shakespeare’s surviving 38 plays. 18 of these had not been published before the First Folio. Like Jonson, Heminge and Condell prefaced their folio with commendatory poems praising Shakespeare and grateful gestures toward noble patrons. Heminge and Condell divided the plays into generic categories that still shape our interpretations today. Their book made the strongest possible claims for the lasting importance of Shakespeare’s plays. Unlike Jonson’s Workes, Shakespeare’s First Folio did not include his poems.
The First Folio’s claims on Shakespeare’s behalf were persuasive. Over the course of the 17th century, Shakespeare’s dramatic works would be published three additional times in the same format and sequence – books now known as the Second, Third, and Fourth Folios. His corpus would be expanded in the process: the Third Folio advertised its inclusion of new works by Shakespeare, though most of these plays are now believed to be by other playwrights.
Shakespeare in flux: The later folios not only added plays, changing how Shakespeare was thought of as a playwright, they collectively and progressively made thousands of alterations to the text of the First Folio. The publishers of each new folio made substitutions to improve on obvious errors in prior editions and to replace phrasing that had stopped making sense as the language and culture changed. In changing Shakespeare’s texts while continuing to promote his reputation as a most valued writer, the Folios participated in a process that has never faltered. Each era would reformat, reframe, and rewrite Shakespeare as a way of sustaining his influence and reputation.
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