The Shakespeare First Folio.
Its Bibilographical and Textual History
By W. W. Greg. (Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1955.)
Copyright 1957 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter (English), Spring 1957.
As Dr. Greg says in his preface: “This account of the Shakespeare First Folio was originally planned as an introduction to a facsimile of the volume. The scheme for a facsimile fell through, but the introduction got itself written in an extended form and now appears independently.” If it would not otherwise have appeared in its present form, we have some reason to be grateful that the scheme for a facsimile fell through. Let us hope it is only postponed but, meanwhile, we have the extended introduction.
This is necessarily something more than a study of the First Folio itself, for about half of the Folio texts were set up from corrected quartos—a fact which is vouched for by the numerous misprints which escaped detection and crept into the Folio from the Quartos. And what lies behind the quartos; behind the corrections and additions; and behind the texts of the remaining plays, which had not previously appeared in print? Manuscripts, of course—but what sort of manuscripts: playhouse prompt copies; transcripts made for the purpose; or Shakespeare’s own autograph? These are some of the questions which Dr. Greg sets out to answer. Then there is the fascinating problem of the “‘Bad Quartos” which appeared from time to time, and the abortive attempt at a collection in 1619.
“The ‘Collection’ of 1619 is not on the face of it a collection at all, nor does it ostensibly associate itself with any one year. Of the ten plays included only three have continuous signatures, the other seven are all bibliographically independent: of the nine title-pages one is undated, three are dated 1619, three are dated 1600, and two are dated 1608; and the names of several different stationers appear in the imprints. Yet there is no question but that they were all printed at Jaggard’s press within a few weeks of one another in 1619.”
The plays, all attributed to Shakespeare, were A Yorkshire Tragedy, 2 Sir John Oldcastle, Pericles, The Whole Contention, spurious texts of The Merry Wives and Henry V, and reasonably good texts of The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Only two copies of the collection survive, as such. For the rest, the plays were sold in separate volumes under their false dates, but the bibliographical evidence . . . “suggests that the original plan was for a regular collection with a general title-page on which fuller information respecting the printing and sale of the book would be provided”, but the plan seems to have been abandoned owing to the intervention of The Lord Chamberlain, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Greg quotes a note from the Court-Book of the Stationers’ Company:
“Hen, Hemmings. uppon a letter from the right honourable the Lord Chamberleyne It is thought fitt & so ordered That no playes that his Majestyes players do play shalbe printed withour consent of some of them.”
and adds the following comment: “If ‘Hen’ is an error, as seems probable, it was John Heminge himself who took the letter to the Court”. Here, then, we have two of the sponsors of the First Folio acting together in 1619 to prevent the publication in Shakespeare’s name of a collection of plays, two of which were not his at all, while the texts of most of the others were spurious. Unfortunately William Herbert’s letter has not survived, but it is evidently referred to in another letter, quoted by Greg, which was addressed to the Stationers’ company on 10th June, 1637, by Philip Herbert’ Earl of Montgomery, who had by then succeeded his brother, William, both as Earl of Pembroke and Lord Chamberlain:
“Wheras complaint was heertofore presented to my Deare brother & predecessor by his Majestes servants the Players, that some of the Company of Printers and Stationers had procured, published and printed diverse of their bookes of Comedyes, Tragedyes, Cronicle Historyes, and the like, which they had (for the speciall service of his Majestye & their owne use) Bought and provided at very Deare and high rates, By means wherof not onely they themselves had much prejudice, but the bookes much corruption to the injury and disgrace of the Authors; And therupon the Masters & Wardens of the company of printers & stationers were advised by my Brother to take notice therof & to take order for the stay of any further Impression of any of the Playes or Interludes of his Majestes servantes without their consentes.”
From Greg’s point of view: “it is here the players speaking: we hear them voicing their resentment at the circulation of garbled versions of Shakespeare’s plays” but, from the Oxfordian point of view, these two successive Lord Chamberlains may have had more personal grounds for resentment, since Philip Herbert was, of course, the son-in-law of the Earl of Oxford.
Who planned the First Folio? Was it, as Greg thinks, the players Heminge and Condell, or was it, by any chance, “that Incomparable Pair of Brethren,” William, Earl of Pembroke and Philip, Earl of Montgomery, to whom it is dedicated.
Greg is more than doubtful whether Heminge and Condell actually wrote the Dedication and the Address to the “Great Variety of Readers” and seems inclined to favour the theory that these were the work of Ben Jonson—who was, of course, in the employment of the Herberts. In any case, says Greg, Heminge and Condell claim no more than to have “collected” the plays. Who was the Editor? Greg disposes of the claims of the stationer, Edward Blount, who came unto the venture too late, and suggests the book-keeper of the King’s Men. But this is sheer guess-work and there is a good deal to be said in favour of Ben Jonson himself.
A whole chapter is devoted to “Questions of Copyright.” In Elizabethan times, copyright was vested in the Stationer, not in the author, and entries were made in the Hall Book of the Stationers’ Company, generally known as the “Stationers’ Register.” Many of Shakespeare’s plays had been published in quarto by many different stationers, but by the time the Folio was published some of the copyrights were “derelict” and the others had passed by assignment into the hands of a few men. The Folio was printed in 1623, “at the Charges of W. Jaggard, Ed. Blount, I. Smithweeke, and W. Aspley,” who owned between them the rights in six plays; and arrangements must have been made with the other owners. Shortly before publication, an entry was made in the Stationers’ Register including all the plays which had not already appeared in print, with four notable exceptions—The Taming of the Shrew, King John and two out of the three plays on Henry VI. These must have been treated as identical with The Taming of the Shrew, The Troublesome Reign of King John and the two parts of The Contention between the Houses of York and Lancaster.
Apart from the final chapter on “The Printing,” the second half of the book is taken up with a detailed textual examination of the individual plays which is invaluable for reference but impossible to deal with in a short review. I have, however, one criticism to make: Why does Greg adopt the chronological order “as arranged by Chambers” which, as he knows, has recently been called in question by the processes of textual criticism itself? As yet, there is no new chronology to replace it, but since this book is about the First Folio and was, in its inception, an introduction to that volume, would it not have been better to throw chronology to the winds, for once, and discuss the plays in the Folio order, too little known to the modern reader, instead of merely listing it on p. 169? Greg also gives Chambers’ dates at the head of each section, though he admits at the beginning of the chapter that they are often “conjectural and approximate.”