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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature / history


Shakespeare's First Folio

Emma Smith

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To purchase Shakespeare's First Folio

Title: Shakespeare's First Folio
Author: Emma Smith
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2016
Length: 343 pages
Availability: Shakespeare's First Folio - US
Shakespeare's First Folio - UK
Shakespeare's First Folio - Canada
  • Four Centuries of an Iconic Book

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Our Assessment:

B+ : thorough, interesting book study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 30/12/2015 Jerry Brotton
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/6/2016 James Ryerson
Times Higher Ed. . 19/5/2016 Lisa Hopkins

  From the Reviews:
  • "(D)elightful (...) There is also bite in Smith’s exuberant tales of buying, selling and displaying Shakespeare. In an object lesson in global book reception, she follows the imperial history of Folios to New Zealand and South Africa, discovering their important and overlooked role in an uneasy story of globalisation. This is a beautifully judged book about books, impeccably researched yet wry and affectionate" - Jerry Brotton, Financial Times

  • "Smith concerns herself with all these activities, paying special attention to how, over time, they have invested the book, as well as the figure of Shakespeare, with meaning." - James Ryerson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Smith’s account of the Folio’s distinguished career is very nicely written and consistently entertaining and informative. It is judiciously structured (.....) I found a section on the correcting of misprints less compelling, but I can imagine some readers for whom this would be a highlight." - Lisa Hopkins, Times Higher Education

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As the title suggests, Shakespeare's First Folio is a study of that famous book -- and Emma Smith's study really does focus on the book -- that specific edition -- rather than the text, on how: "that very book has moved through time, space, and context".
       The First Folio is an almost ideal example: aside from its great significance as text, it was published in an edition of about 750, and about a third of the copies survive: a manageable number that is also large enough to provide some broader insights (as would not be the case for a book existing only in a much more limited edition). Smith follows the trails of the physical copies and examines how they have been used, passed on, and sold, making for a quite fascinating biblio-literary tour.
       Smith divides her book into five main chapters, on: 'Owning', 'Reading', 'Decoding', 'Performing', and 'Publishing', considering the First Folio over the centuries in the light of each of these.
       Beginning with the first known purchaser of the Folio -- avid play-collector Edward Dering -- Smith tracks down many of the volumes and what has happened to them. There is, of course, the astonishing example of hoarder Henry Clay Folger, who purchased dozens of First Folios (and vast numbers of the Second, Third, and Fourth, as well); the Folger Shakespeare Library now reports a ridiculous 82 (!) copies in its collection, while the second-largest collection is in ... Japan, where Meisei University has a dozen copies on hand. Meanwhile, the Oxford University Bodleian Library apparently sold off their copy sometime in the 1660s -- and then struggled to buy it back in 1905.
       Among her interesting observations and discoveries is that for so long:

A First Folio seems to have been more an editorial talisman than a research source: it's worth recalling that, until the end of the eighteenth century no copy existed in an institutional library.
       Each copy differs slightly, as a consequence of the printing process, as well as the fact that the original purchasers bought loose copies so that they could bind them to suit their tastes and purposes, and further changes accrued as the volumes were in use, as Smith considers everything from the kinds of corrections readers made (there were a lot of errata) to the marginalia to the highlighting and underscoring of various bits of text -- all of which, as she demonstrates, can be revealing.
       Smith also notes other embellishments, such as the fad of 'grangerizing' -- the adding of illustrations to the (finished) book, whereby (rather shockingly):
     A copy of the Shakespeare First Folio was, however, less likely to be the recipient of grangerizing material than its unwilling donor. Many -- perhaps even most -- copies have had some part removed.
       The number of volumes she was able to consider and compare are also sufficient to suggest and reveal: "reading patterns and textual hotspots of readerly attention". Even without going into full-scale textual analysis and comparison, she gives some interesting examples.
       Shakespeare's First Folio is very much a book-study, and proves to be an interesting and helpful variation on the usual Shakespearean study in focusing less on the text or even the author's reputation but rather what that particular edition meant, and came to mean (and symbolize) over the course of some four centuries, in all varieties of contexts (from its initially predominantly private ownership and use, to the hallowed institutionalized treatment of the remaining copies now).
       Shakespeare's First Folio makes for an interesting -- and well and very thoroughly researched -- voyage, though as very bookish history it will certainly be of considerably more interest to some (bibliophiles; the Shakespeare-interested) than others.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 June 2016

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Shakespeare's First Folio: Reviews: Emma Smith: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Emma Smith teaches at Oxford.

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© 2016 the complete review

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