This (probably rather frivolous) purchase was probably incited, in part, by the recent touring exhibition of some of the actual First Folios from the Folger Shakespeare Library as a part of their "Wonder of Will" celebration in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death which came to Omaha's Durham Museum last spring. I HAD seen another original before, as there is one on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which I saw when I was there in 2009. And I MAY have seen others, which I just don’t remember. That's not really the point, though.
I have read enough about the FF to know that it's probably the closest we will ever come to knowing what Shakespeare actually wrote in the plays the FF contains (almost all of the works in the accepted canon). Yes, it's not easy to read. The spelling and typography can be hard to follow, the punctuation and spelling is odd to modern eyes, etc. There are also, almost certainly, a good many mistakes made in transcribing the written words into type for printing. Printers are, after all, human, so mistakes were made. Some of these were, evidently, corrected while the printing of the FF was in progress, so some (more knowledgeable scholars than I) have suggested that no two surviving copies of the Folio are exactly identical and there have been studies regarding how many people actually set the type for the FF.
Still, while Shakespeare didn't live long enough to edit the final copy, it was (if we believe the evidence printed in the book and the records from the time) prepared by two people (John Heminge and Henry Condell) who worked closely with Will when the plays were actually presented at the Globe and the Blackfriars, and who had been his friends and fellow members of the Lord Chamberlain's and King's Men acting company. The exact source of the scripts they used is not known, but there would appear to be every reason to believe that these scripts were at least pretty close to the plays as they had produced and performed them while Shakespeare was alive. Can we prove that? No, but they said that the plays in the folio they helped create contained Shakespeare’s plays "…now offer'd to your view cured, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he conceived them." In short, they claimed that the copies in the folio were absolutely correct.
Could this be true? I would suggest that this is probably not a completely factual statement, although it is possible. After all, spelling in English was not standardized until a good while after the period of publication and it would appear that a good deal of spelling was more a matter of how a word was pronounced at the time. Some suggest that this may help to explain the variant spellings of the same words in the FF and has led some to try to identify a number of different compositors (who actually set the type for the FF) since different typesetters might well have used different spellings.
Now, typesetting this book would have been a very large task for a book of this size (remember the type would have been hand set), so it’s entirely reasonable that more than one person would have been engaged in this process for the FF. It also could help to explain the number of seeming errors in setting the type for this many pages, especially if different people set different pages for a given sheet of paper, which seems probable.
It’s probably worth noting that the editions of these plays which we read today have been, in every case I know of, “corrected,” at least to some extent, by more recent editors. That is, spelling and punctuation have, generally, been at least somewhat “modernized,” some of the apparently awkward spacings and line divisions in the FF have been altered to make them more “correct,” etc. Many modern editions are also compiled from various Folios (there were four by 1685) and/or the quartos previously published of some of the plays. This helps to explain why there are so many, slightly different, versions of the plays available for modern audiences to use in reading or production. Certainly, an additional reason for this variety is that modern editions also generally contain unique editorial “Notes” intended to help us understand language which is a bit different from that of the present day.
To my mind, the most obvious (and perhaps the most dangerous) version of such “Notes” is the fairly recent practice of providing (usually on facing pages) the “original” text (which, of course, means some “standard” edition of the text, which almost certainly is NOT taken directly from an identified source) facing a version of the text “translated into modern language” (which means that some, usually unidentified, editor[s] has decided what the words mean and used that in the “translation.”) That CAN be a help, of course, but it suggests, at least to me, that some nameless editor(s) have the “true” insight into what Shakespeare meant and can “translate” it in such a way as to suggest that there is no doubt about its accuracy . I beg to differ.
I’m very much afraid that this helps perpetuate the notion that there is (somewhere out there) some definitive notion of the meaning of these plays and that, if we can only discover it (with the help, of course, of these nameless editors) we will be ushered into a state of some sort of Shakespearean bliss. As I discussed briefly in my post #52, I find this unlikely, if only because of the fact is that language (words) don’t always just have a single meaning in the present, nor did they in Shakespeare’s time.
To me, an obvious example of that is the famous reference to a “nunnery” in Act III, sc. 1, of Hamlet, the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. The notes in many standard editions of the play define “nunnery” as “convent,” although a few also include the notion that “nunnery” was also a term used to refer to a brothel. To me, that poses something of a problem because Hamlet saying that to Ophelia could be suggesting that he doesn’t wish her to come to harm, but to avoid the corruption he sees around the Danish court by entering a convent for safety; OR, he could be suggesting that she is, in fact, a part of the corruption and has behaved little better than a whore. Now, these are rather different ideas, but either, or both, COULD be being implied here. So, which is right?
I don’t know. However, as Harley Granville-Barker points out in his Preface to Hamlet, (pp.78-79) there is a distinct change in tone in the scene immediately after Hamlet asks Ophelia “Where is your father?” to which she replies, “At home, my lord” (a fact which we know she knows to be untrue). Hamlet uses the word “nunnery” a total of five times in this scene, three of them AFTER this exchange. My belief is that the first two times he uses the word, he probably means something different from the third and fourth time he does. To me, this makes a good deal of sense, if one buys into Granville-Barker’s idea that something happens just before the “Where’s your father?” line which convinces Hamlet that they are being watched and that Ophelia probably knows that. I haven’t decided about the final time he says “nunnery.” I think the meaning is ambiguous in that case and might be interpreted either way depending on actor/director choice.
My point here is that whether we rely on “Notes” or modern “translations” (Note: most scholars would agree, I think, that any translation from any language into any other language never captures all of the nuances of the original), the original meaning, assuming that there WAS a specific, original meaning, was expressed by Shakespeare in this way, so that it’s wise to be aware of the language, punctuation, etc. which he actually used, where possible. I would also suggest that Early English and contemporary usage of the English language are different enough so that the converting of one to the other really is a “translation.” But, I’m getting distracted from my original point.
While visiting the “Wonder of Will” exhibit, I also acquired a copy of a companion book, Foliomania, which was published by the Folger Shakespeare Library containing an essay entitled: The Shakespeare First Folio: The Actors Text by Don Weingust. He suggests that it is at least possible that some of the “inaccuracies” in the FF were not, in fact, inaccuracies, but were actually intended by Shakespeare (or possibly Heminge and Condell) to provide insight into the performance of the plays, so the “corrections” by editors after the fact of the First Folio might, in fact, be the real inaccuracies. That is, unusual spacing could have been deliberately used as an indication that some piece of important stage business filled the rest of the “space” of a line. Or, an unusual spelling (perhaps a change of spelling within a single speech) indicated a change in pronunciation or emphasis, and one of the “odd” appearances of capitalization could have been intended to mark the need for greater emphasis on a particular word. I confess that I found this a fascinating idea, which accounts for at least some of my interest in acquiring a First Folio for my own use.
I would contend that Weingust’s essay offers some interesting possibilities for consideration. The American Shakespeare Center in Virginia and Shakespeare’s Globe in London are, perhaps, the best-known sources of “original practices” productions, although they are far from alone in looking at these ideas. I confess that I haven’t really studied my own copy of the First Folio (or even any of the individual plays) with production clearly in mind, and it’s possible that I never will. After all, the possibility of my actually directing any more of Shakespeare’s plays at this stage of my life seems fairly slim, and I hadn’t been exposed to these ideas for the productions I have directed.
Still, even without further study, I find these ideas pretty fascinating. After all, while we may think of Shakespeare primarily as a writer today (it’s that English teacher influence again), he WAS, in fact, a known (apparently pretty well-known) actor during his life and the First Folio was, in fact, assembled by John Heminge and Henry Condell, who were also actors and fellow members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s men, along with Shakespeare. Since it can be established that plays (and the rights to them) were sold outright to acting companies during this time, it seems quite reasonable that they could have had access to the scripts owned by the company and that they were the ones used in the creation of the FF. IF Shakespeare had used various techniques to provide performance clues in creating the scripts (certainly a possibility), then it is also possible that at least some of those clues were preserved in the First Folio.
I think that makes it reasonable to suggest that anyone producing one of Shakespeare’s plays might be wise to carefully consider making a close reading of that play in the First Folio to consider if there are clues there to a deeper understanding of the script or the characters. I confess I wish that I had the opportunity to justify expending that sort of energy on a study of that sort. Who knows, I just might do it in any case, at least with a play, or two.
In any event, I don’t believe that it could hurt, and it just might be helpful. I think that might well be worth the effort.