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.
An interesting tale. It’s fascinating how close we came to never knowing his plays. The world would be poorer without them, I think. But, oh, to actually see a First Folio… that would be amazing!
A lot of people have commented here, wondering how many great works we *have* lost! Makes you wonder…
It’s funny how so many artist’s works aren’t appreciated until they’re gone. Maybe we’ll be famous. 🙂
I’ll drink to that! 😀
I bet you didn’t know that he was really Irish…
Lol – no, I didn’t. Seeing how the debate on his identity is still raging, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s true!
To faith, friendship, loyalty, and Tyche (https://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Tykhe.html)! Thanks for the fascinating post, Nicholas. I knew that Shakespeare’s works were almost lost to the literary world, but I’d never heard of his two faithful friends who laboured so diligently to preserve his works. How much easier it is today to simply type, post, and share a review!
Indeed! But also, how much easier for your works to get lost among the thousands of others doing the same 🙂
And so perhaps, we should put up in our testament later that our closest trusted friend can have our work. And let publish it and be rich! hehe …
Erm, you do realize we’ll be dead by then, right? 😀
Oh yes. True.
Other people get rich then.
ѕнєяяιє, be wary of whom you gift your work to. Here’s a cautionary tale: “After his death, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche became the curator and editor of her brother’s manuscripts, reworking Nietzsche’s unpublished writings to fit her own German nationalist ideology while often contradicting or obfuscating his stated opinions, which were explicitly opposed to antisemitism and nationalism.” (From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche)
Thank you for this information, Connie!
I know of this story with Nietzsche very well. We studied his work at college.
I loved his satire of the German philosophers of the time. I recall laughing out loud while reading one of his books. My roommate asked what I was reading that was so funny and when I showed him, he just shook his head. It’s very unfortunate that Nietzsche’s work was misrepresented by his wife and the Nazi party.
Not everyone admire his work just as many does not prefer Immanuel Kant, of which I studied years back. That was hard for many to understand him. LOL
Which book did you refer?
I think it was Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Oh, yes, the Laughing Prophet! One who knows Nietzsche knows that book very well. He wrote this brilliantly. I think, to my opinion that this Zarathustra is the one that has break the rules of philosophy itself in so many ways. The old tradition ways of philosophies like Plato or Socrates were unique but old. Nietzsche had changed that in Zarathustra and his works had been different.
He reminded me much of Albert Camus who has almost the similiarities in their works. They are both genius!
Lol – I can just imagine your roommate’s bewilderment 😀
Yes. She was an innocent. She once received an obscene phone call, the caller asking her what she “had on.” She replied with the name of the show she was watching on television, thinking he was doing a poll about the popularity of various programs during that time slot. LOL.
Ha ha – brilliant 😀
Factoid: “what are you wearing” is the traditional question my lead programmer and I ask each other when we start our daily (phone) meeting. It makes discussing code and deadlines a little bit less boring 😀
Nietzsche’s sister was a notorious basket case… Then again, her husband did shoot himself after his failed attempt to create a Nazi paradise in Latin America.
I didn’t know that, so thanks for sharing that. I’ll have to look it up.
Fascinating reading. Thanks for sharing, Nicholas.
Thanks Nicholas. I’m always on the look out for your blogs because I learn so much from you but this takes the cake. I’ve reblogged it as well. 😀
Aw, you! Thank you!! 🙂
Wow. What a story and what a near miss! The Complete Works of Shakespeare was one of the first books I bought with my own money as a kid (my mom used to take us to plays – so we knew the more popular plays as kids). What a terrible loss had his friends not saved his work. Wonderful for all of us.
Absolutely! And your mom sounds like a great lady 🙂
Thank you got this post. It would have been a shame to have lost Shakespeare’s work, but thanks to his two good friends, it lives on and so does Shakespeare.
Yay for good friends 🙂
Cool blog @Nicholas! I love Shakespeare. Thanks for reminding us how people got famous a few hundreds years ago (before social media etc.)
I wonder if things have really changed all that much 🙂
Nicholas, that’s what I was just thinking when I rad Gisela’s comment!
Nice tribute to our English icon, Nicholas. Any thoughts on whether or not he actually wrote them? The theories around that argument kept me interested for many years.
Best wishes, Pete.
Some doubt he even existed, so… 🙂
Beetleypete, I’ve read several theories, and the one that has the most arguments to defend it was that Sir Francis Bacon wrote the plays and sonnets attributed to Shakespeare.
I once liked the theory about Christopher Marlow, killed in a Deptford tavern. There is much to suggest Bacon too, and the arguments will no doubt continue. The humble origins of Shakespeare do not support the talent and erudition of his works, in the times that he lived in. Then again, he may have been a savant, or genius, who will ever know?
Best wishes, Pete.
Lol – I’m so not getting dragged into that debate 😀
Thank you Nic for that. How great was it, Shakes having friends who believed in him so much they continued to keep his work alive, and now we have this icon who we would have never known. Life can be a strange concept. Wonderful piece of info. Thank you again. VLZ
A pleasure! Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂
So much Of success is an accident, Nick, isn’t it? Like, er, EL James…
I know. Still waiting for that accident to happen.
Aaaargh! Tara, you just brought back a terrible memory of having to read 50 Shades of Grey for product knowledge! (I work in a bookstore.) Shakespeare may have made many sexual puns in his works, but your comparison is sacrilegious. Lol.
I think that Tara will consider that to be a compliment 😀
I’m aiming to be the shock-jock of popular literature, Connie. Revelling in hideous juxtapositions and EL James-baiting ?
May I be the first to say what a lovely ambition that is.
Brava, Tara! You’re doing an excellent job as a shock-jock. 😀
One of the reasons I keep writing and outlining. Never know if my role was only to get the ideas written down while someone down the line makes something of them. A weird way to look at things, but I think there are plenty of people who became famous after they died. Always wondered how that works though. Also, what would the world be like if Shakespeare never got famous?
One wonders how many Shakespeares slipped through the cracks.
Thinking in the thousands if you go back through history. This is including people who were discouraged from even trying.
Thanks for this interesting piece, Nicholas. This was new information to me. 🙂 — Suzanne
Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
A good memorial story Nicholas! The power of esteem and generosity has to be added to brilliance for artistic survival.
Well said 🙂
Some people need to die first before getting famous or the more famous than they did before … Odd way of life sometimes …
Thank you for sharing this, Nicholas!
Just like Van Gogh. He was unknown until he died. It was the work of his sister in law that brought his arts into the world. If not for her decision, then no one would know Van Gogh. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, both of them had a decent life before that and famous for their art work.
Life of a writer or an artist is never an easy one.
I didn’t know about Van Gogh’s sister-in-law. Thanks for sharing!
Her name was Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger, married to Van Gogh brother, Theo van Gogh. The last days before he died, he inherited all of his works to his brother and he had kept it since then.
But ill fate befall her soon enough when her own husband too, died. It was then she decided to introduce Van Gogh into the world and later it became the one of the most legendary arts ever since …
Thanks for that information, Sherrie. I knew that Theo often came to Vincent’s aid both financially and personally, but I didn’t know about his wife’s role in Vincent’s posthumous success.
Many didn’t know this unless when one really has the interest in knowing or learning more on that particular writer or artist. I also didn’t know that William was not that famous until those two brought out his works to the outside world.
But ain’t that interesting to know that someone highly intelligent, smart and very creative like William does not even have the thoughts nor wanting to publish his own work …
Hadn’t looked at it that way! Yes, that’s very interesting. Even more so if you consider the possibility that no publisher was interested in doing so!
I wonder how those publisher react to the popularity and success of those writers they refused to produce in the first place? …
They must have cried and whining in the nights, thinking of the money and film making … LOL
It is my understanding that most of the rejections occur in the hands of lowly interns. The bosses may not even be aware the author had sent them the manuscript…
Then we personally go up and see the boss! We demand for it! Or we just smash the office door if they don’t let us in! LOL
Lol – yes, that would work 😀
But first, you and I got to wear hero costumes with caps on. Make it look dangerous that the publisher get too nervous to refuse. LOL
Lol – let me check the closet and see if Electra will let me borrow a cape 😀
Let see if I can find my last Halloween costume of Catwoman. I’ll take the whip as well. LOL
Not unless you’re writing the sequel to 50 shades!
50 Shades of Publishing Trick & Treat
With good tactics on how to be successful in publishing.
You should write on that one with me in it using the Catwoman leather suit of which I cannot move or walk in it. LOL What to say trying to smash the publisher’s office door.
Then I do the whipping while you take out your tablet and start editing! Very inspiring scene. Dangerous mission! LOL
Lol – you do know I write children’s stories, right? I may be able to whip him with an asparagus, though.
Using asparagus? Now, that is a good weapon for it. Very healthy! LOL
Yes, of course I know you write children’s stories. For now, I have the second book on Pearseus. Love your novels.
Aw, that’s so sweet of you! Thank you 🙂
You are so welcome, Nicholas!
(✿◠‿◠) – another Emoji