What is Shakespeare’s First Folio?

Have you heard the news? In January 2018, ISF will expand its horizon into winter programming with the professional premier of Scott Kaiser’s new play, Shakespeare’s Other Women: A New Anthology of Monologues, giving voice to text Shakespeare might have written had he provided more for his female characters to speak.

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This timely story weaves together an anthology of 36 new monologues, written in iambic pentameter, in Shakespeare’s vernacular, set in the historical moment upon the completion of Shakespeare’s First Folio of collected works. Shakespeare’s Other Women explores the female experience that exists beneath the surface of Shakespeare’s works, acknowledging the repression of female voices throughout history.  But what is the First Folio?  Why is it important today?

The title page of Shakespeare's First Folio.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, two of his colleagues from the King’s Men acting company (John Heminges and Henry Condell, the characters who frame the structure of Shakespeare’s Other Women) put together the first collection of Shakespeare’s work and called it “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies.” We now know this collection as Shakespeare’s “First Folio.” Folio refers to the paper size: books were printed on folded sheets in either quarto (folded twice into quarters) or folio (folded only once, in half) formats. Folios were larger and more expensive to print than quartos. They were usually only printed for important texts.

 

The First Quarto of Hamlet, printed 1603

We know that at least 17 of Shakespeare’s plays were printed as quartos during his lifetime. Printing and copyright were very different in Elizabethan England. It was common for poets to publish their work for public consumption, as Shakespeare did with his sonnets, but plays were printed far less frequently, were not copyrighted to their authors, and certainly were not considered high literature. Shakespeare’s quartos were likely not published by Shakespeare himself, but by colleagues of his from his acting company. Some plays were printed in multiple quarto versions, which differ drastically from one another (compare Hamlet’s “To be or not to be, that is the question” vs ”To be or not to be, ay, there’s the point!”). It is impossible to know which, if any, quarto versions accurately represent what the author intended.

It is presumed that Heminges and Condell used published quartos, actors’ prompt books, Shakespeare’s manuscripts, and working drafts to compile the works contained in the First Folio. Without their effort, the 18 plays for which no quarto versions exist (including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Twelfth Night), might have been lost to time. This leaves us to ponder what they didn’t include.  Shakespeare’s Other Women offers one idea.

Shakespeare’s Other Women runs Thursday-Sunday, January 18-28, at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts’ Zech Hall in Langley, WA. Thursdays are Pay-What-You-Will; Friday-Sunday tickets are $15.  Showtimes are Thurs/Fri/Sat at 7:30PM, Sun at 2:00PM.  Tickets available now!

resumeHeadShotOlena Hodges, ISF (Aside) Editor, is ISF‘s Artistic Director and is a founding acting company member.  Favorite roles at ISF include Rosalind (As You Like It, 2010 and 2016), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing, 2013),  and Juliet (Romeo & Juliet, 2011).  Other regional theaters: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Olena received a BFA in performance from Southern Oregon University and is a graduate of Circle in the Square Theatre School.

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