With April 23 marking the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, few will remember that his lasting fame almost did not happen. A brilliant post by the New York Times explains how that came about.
Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616 on his 52nd birthday. A celebrated writer and actor who had performed for Queen Elizabeth and King James, he wrote approximately 39 plays and composed five long poems and 154 sonnets. However, by the time of his death, he had retired and was considered past his prime.
By the 1620s, his plays were no longer being performed in theaters. On the day he died, no one — not even Shakespeare himself — believed that his works would last, that he was a genius or that future generations would hail his writings.
He hadn’t even published his plays — during his lifetime they were considered ephemeral amusements, not serious literature. Half of them had never been published in any form and the rest had appeared only in unauthorized, pirated versions that corrupted his original language.
Two gold memorial rings
Enter John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s friends, fellow actors, and shareholders in the King’s Men theatrical company. In his will, he left them money to buy gold memorial rings to remember him. By about 1620, they conceived a better way to honor him — one that would make them the two most unsung heroes in the history of English literature. They would do what Shakespeare had never done for himself — publish a complete, definitive collection of his plays.
Heminges and Condell had up to six types of sources available to them: Shakespeare’s original, handwritten drafts; manuscript “prompt books” copied from the drafts; fragment “sides” used by the actors and containing only the lines for their individual parts; printed quartos — cheap paperbound booklets — that published unauthorized and often wildly inaccurate versions of half the plays; after-the-fact memorial reconstructions by actors who had performed in the plays and later repeated their lines to a scribe hired by Heminges and Condell; and the editors’ own personal memories.
Jaggard & Son
At the London print shop Jaggard & Son, workers set the type by hand, printed the sheets one by one and hung them on clotheslines for the ink to dry. The process was methodical and slow, done by hand. It took two years.
When at last the First Folio was finished, it was a physically impressive object. At more than 900 pages, it had size and heft. The tallest copies, right off the press, untrimmed by the printer’s plow, measured 13½ by 8¾ inches.
Published in London in 1623, “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies” revolutionized the language, psychology, and culture of Western civilization. Without the First Folio, published seven years after the bard’s death, 18 iconic works — including “Macbeth,” “Measure for Measure,” “Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Twelfth Night,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” — would have been lost and his evolution from poet to secular saint would never have happened.
The unpredictability of the future
The story of that book is an incredible tale of faith, friendship, loyalty and chance. Few people realize how close the world came, in the aftermath of Shakespeare’s death, to losing him.
Today, the First Folio is one of the most valuable books in the world. In October 2001, one of them sold for more than $6 million. Of the 750 copies printed, two-thirds of them have perished over the last 393 years. Two hundred thirty-five survive.
The unpredictability of the future is one of Shakespeare’s great, recurring themes. He would relish the drama of his own improbable tale. Time has performed many conjuring tricks, but few so fantastic as the making of the First Folio. Thanks to it, Shakespeare may have gone to his grave a mortal man destined to fade from memory, but today he is eternal.