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I popped out in my lunch hour on Wednesday to visit the Shakespeare in Print exhibition at the Guildhall Library. This looks at the history of printing William Shakespeare’s plays, from late sixteenth century quartos to seventeenth century folios, the reworked versions of the eighteenth century and the rediscovery and popularity of the originals in the nineteenth. I wanted to go on a Wednesday as this was the only day of the week on which the Library’s original First Folio is displayed – a facsimile is on view at all other times. This First Folio was acquired around 1760 by William Petty Fitzmaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, and purchased for the London Institution in 1806; it was transferred to the Guildhall Library in 1912. It is supposed to be one of the five finest copies in existence.

The First Folio dates from 1623; it contains almost all of Shakespeare’s plays. One exception is Pericles, which was only added to the Second Folio. In addition, several early copies of the First Folio do not contain Troilus and Cressida. The First Folio was the result of Shakespeare’s followers and admirers gathering together several years after his death to combine, edit and publish his plays. This is part of the reason Shakespeare’s works are so well known today: it was uncommon for plays to be printed in the sixteenth century, as it could damage the original company’s profits if another company got hold of a written text and started performing it. Shakespeare himself probably did not authorise any such publication in his lifetime. It’s just as well the First Folio was published, as it is the earliest printed version of around half of Shakespeare’s plays, including MacbethJulius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Without the First Folio, these plays may have been lost.

The First Folio was followed by the Second, Third and Fourth Folios as Shakespeare remained popular. As plays became accepted as serious literature, other works were published during this time, and the exhibition holds some examples of these, including The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (recently performed at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) and the works of Benjamin Johnson.

During the eighteenth century, Shakespeare was often adapted heavily to suit the tastes of the time. For instance, Macbeth was performed with songs (I would love to see this) and as a ‘travestie’ version – a spoof in two acts (I would also love to see this). During the Victorian era, Shakespeare began to take on the iconic status he still has today and theatre-makers began to go back to the original texts and study Shakespeare more seriously. ‘Variorum’ editions of the works – editions including all known variants of a text, including notes – began to be produced, and gift books, such as the ‘Library Shakespeare’ on display, were common.

The exhibition didn’t just contain books: there was also a dress worn by Juliet Rylance in the Globe’s 2005 production of  The Winter’s Tale, which was made by the Original Practices Clothing Archive. Overall, this was a small but fascinating free exhibition and I’m glad I made the effort to go, even though it meant a bit of a rush during lunch!

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