Chicago Shakespeare Theater utilizes the first Folio as its script and acting “blueprint.” Many directors consider the first Folio the most authentic and effective manual available to Shakespearean actors nearly 400 years after its publication. Its punctuation gives clues to actors about what words to emphasize and about which ideas are important. In Shakespeare’s own theater company, with only a few days at most to rehearse each new play, these built-in clues were essential. Today, they can still help actors make the language much easier to understand—even though you’re hearing language that’s 400 years younger than ours.
Shakespeare wrote his plays for the stage, not for publication. In Shakespeare’s day, plays were not considered literature at all. When a play was published—if it was published at all—it was printed inexpensively in a small book, called a “quarto,” the sixteenth-century equivalent of our paperbacks. It was not until 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, when a contemporary of his, dramatist Ben Jonson, published his own plays in an oversized book called a “folio,” that plays were viewed as literature worthy of publication. Jonson was chided as bold and arrogant for his venture.
Shakespeare, unlike Jonson, showed no interest or involvement in the publication of his plays, and during Shakespeare’s own lifetime, only half of his plays were ever printed—and those as quartos. It was only after the playwright’s death when two of Shakespeare’s close colleagues decided to ignore tradition and gather his plays for publication. In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the first Folio, a book containing 36 of his 38 plays, was published. The first Folio was compiled from stage prompt books, the playwright’s handwritten manuscripts, various versions of some of the plays already published—and from the memory of his actors. Its large format (much like a modern atlas) was traditionally reserved for the “authority” of religious and classical works.
Shakespeare’s first Folio took five “compositors” two and one-half years to print. The compositors manually set each individual letter of type by first memorizing the text line by line. There was no editor overseeing the printing, and the compositors frequently altered punctuation and spelling. Errors caught in printing would be corrected but, due to the prohibitively high cost of paper, earlier copies remained intact. Of the 1,200 copies of the first Folio that were printed, approximately 230 survive today, each slightly different. Chicago’s Newberry Library contains a first Folio in its rich collections (and it can be viewed in small groups by appointment).
A key to understanding Shakespeare’s language is to appreciate the attitude toward speech accepted by him and his contemporaries. Speech was traditionally and piously regarded as God’s final and consummate gift to man. Speech was thus to Elizabethans a source of enormous power for good or ill... Hence the struggle to excel in eloquent utterance.
–David Bevington, 1980