Johnson's World: Of Quartos and Folios

Reflecting on the bard, 400 years after the traveling poet's death.

April 1, 2016
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Shakespeare's First Folio open to Hamlet's most famous soliloquy.

In our day and age, it seems that every movie, novel, song, or concert is ballyhooed as “the event of the century” or “an event of unparalleled historical significance.” As general rule, if someone has to tell you that an event is of earth-shattering importance, it probably isn’t.

It’s different in "Johnson’s World." When I tell you that an event took place of unparalleled importance in the English-speaking world, I mean it. When I say it was the single most significant event in printing, literature, drama, and publishing, you had better listen. Actually, it was the second most significant event after the King James Bible, but holding the silver medal after 400 years is still pretty good.

In 1623 Jacobean England was awash in print. The first printing press had arrived a century and a half earlier, and print quickly became the standard method of written communication with the general populace, or at least the literate subset thereof.

Although embraced for mass communication, printing had not yet caught on for what we might call inter-office communication. The quill pen and ink pot, not the press, were the email of their day.

So it was that when the immensely popular theatrical troupe known as the King’s Men (formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) began rehearsing a new work written by their star playwright, William Shakespeare, they were working from scripts scribbled and scratched onto scraps of paper, not from printed playbooks.

The process went something like this: Shakespeare composed a play with his pen. When complete, he shared it with his fellow actors, who quickly committed their lines to memory. Once memorized, Shakespeare’s original drafts were no longer needed, and not a single scrap remains for posterity.

As the rehearsals progressed, Shakespeare revised and expanded his plays. Since Shakespeare was always on hand as one of the actors, this process often continued after plays were performed and further edits were made in response to audience reaction. As a result, there was no definitive version of "the bard’s" plays in his own time. [Editor's note: Bards were traveling poets in medieval times, who made a living performing and telling stories.]

The most popular plays were published after their performance in quarto format, so called because they were printed in eight-page signatures and folded into quarters. Shakespeare himself did not oversee these publications and their content varied considerably. In fact, Shakespeare is not even credited on some quartos.

Print After Death

It wasn’t until six years after his death that two members of Shakespeare’s company embarked on a project to collect most or all of his plays into one volume. That is the book we know today at the First Folio.

First, because it was the first time 18 of the plays had ever been printed, including some of those that are now considered among his greatest works. Folio, because it employed a four-page signature format. The size of a folio was eerily similar to the maximum sheet size of the earliest digital printers.

Quartos were mass-market books (like today’s paperbacks) but folios were much higher priced editions intended for libraries of the wealthy. Gutenberg’s Bible was printed in folio format.

The magnitude of this project was immense. By my reckoning, over three million characters comprised the First Folio, about as many as the King James Bible which had rocked the English-speaking world just a dozen years earlier.

Every single letter was hand set. In today’s world of OCR (optical character recognition), voice recognition, and swipe keyboards, it is amazing to think that men with tweezers and drawers of type were responsible for creating most of our printed work well into the 20th century.

In the days of movable type, typographical errors were easily corrected when discovered during the printing process. With the task of proofreading as immense as the editing and typesetting and taking place concurrent to printing, no two volumes of the first folio are exactly the same. Now that’s the original print on demand!

The First Folio was a financial success. About 750 copies were printed, 233 of which are extant. Over a third are owned by the Folger Library, which is currently sponsoring a tour that brings an original First Folio to all 50 states. Make sure you go to see this bit of printing history!