Book review by Michael Foight
Paul Collins’ The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World traces the history of the various early editions of the Bard: from the Quarto editions of individual plays through the First to Fourth Folios of collected works. In this highly readable saga of both discovery and detail, Collins shows the importance of textual scholarship for a deeper understanding of current productions of Shakespeare’s plays.
What we see when we watch a performance of Hamlet, for example, is as much a function of the playwright – William Shakespeare – as it is of the editors and publishers who preserved and made accessible Shakespeare’s works in the years immediately after his death. According to Collins, “History is about the past and the dead, but the sale of history is all about the present and the living. The heroes of the present wax while the heroes of the past wane.” Keeping the memory of a deceased playwright’s old works alive was a monumental feat.
Even today collectors vie for early editions of Shakespeare at auctions, while scholars still study the individual copies for clues about textual errors and variant printings in these works that are known and quoted by so many people. Individual copes of First Folios show the vestiges of ownership and the passage of time differently. Collins follows several copies down through the ages from their printing to today.
Along the way, Collins provides his audience with amusing stories of the lives of the editors and owners of these most rare works. He concludes his study with an overview of the ongoing project to digitize and compare every extant copy of the First Folio: truly a mammoth undertaking but one necessary to unlock the true meaning uncorrupted by textual and print error.
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