Title page offers as many questions as answers

Frank Neufeld // Western News

Scott Schofield is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Huron University College.

Imagine for a moment that we are in London, the year is 1622, and we have just entered the premises of the printer-publisher William Jaggard. Five printed books are in production.

One, a dictionary of Christian words, is nearly complete. Three others, all large books on heraldry, are at different stages of production. The fifth book, a collection of plays, is in its early stages. Fast forward to 1623, and that book now bears the title page Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. Under that title comes the now famous engraved portrait of Shakespeare, along with a note that has kept Shakespearean scholars busy for decades. It reads:

Published according to the True Originall Copies.

Finally, at the foot of the page is another statement, which reads:

London: Printed by Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623.

Reading the page from top to bottom, we encounter four statements of textual authority, three in word and one in image. What are we to make of these three statements in word? The first suggests these are the plays of a single author; the second offers a claim of authenticity; the third, that these plays were printed by two men.

As I will show, these statements are not so much false, as they are incomplete and ambiguous.

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies

Often referred to as The First Folio, the 1623 collection of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays in a large printed format included examples previously printed in single, small-format editions known as quartos. Examples include Hamlet, Richard II and King Lear. But many of the plays in The First Folio were new in print. Othello, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra and 14 others were among the group of plays printed in 1623 for the first time.

Moreover, while the Folio’s 36 plays are attributed to Shakespeare, scholars now know that some of these plays were co-written by Shakespeare and other contemporary dramatists such as Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher. Finally, other plays of Shakespeare’s, such as Pericles, were not included in The First Folio.  If The First Folio includes Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, it does not include all of his plays, nor does it acknowledge the other dramatists who collaborated on some of these works.


Published according to the True Originall Copies

When Shakespeare wrote a play or poem, he would have written with quill and ink on paper to create a manuscript copy. That copy may then have been corrected and re-copied on new paper by Shakespeare or another. This corrected copy might serve as the basis for a performance, which could then be adapted and modified by actors for the stage. It might also serve as the copytext for a printer and his team to follow. Published according to the True Originall Copies, therefore, may refer to Shakespeare’s authorial manuscript copies. I say may and might for, with the exception of one small fragment, no manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays survive. We must resort to other evidence.

There is another problem. Some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays exist as different versions. Hamlet and Lear, to take but two, exist in different versions. The 1604 quarto edition of Hamlet known as Q2 contains lines not found in The Folio version of the play of 1623 and vice versa. The two versions of Lear are in many ways even more challenging, as both the 1608 quarto and 1623 Folio Lear are so distinct as to suggest the possibility of Shakespeare writing multiple versions of the same play. Published according to the True Originall Copies may tempt us to imagine a collection of original, authorial manuscripts, but the print history of Shakespeare in quarto and folio suggests a murkier genealogy of transmission.

London: Printed by Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623

Shakespeare wrote plays; he did not make books. This distinction matters, for in the mythology that surrounds Shakespeare we can easily overlook the range of intermediaries that played a role in seeing his plays into print. For example, in early modern London, those responsible for the making and financing of books, including printed plays, were known as stationers. Prior to a play being printed for the first time, say Romeo and Juliet, it needed to be entered with the Stationers’ Company. By entering a title with the company, and paying a fee to gain the publishing rights to print the work, a stationer could then make arrangements to see it printed. In some cases, the publisher would ask a printer to do the work. In other cases, the publisher printed his own work in-house.

So, why does the point that Shakespeare wrote plays, and didn’t make books matter?

One reason involves ownership. Shakespeare wrote his plays for an acting company (The Lord Chamberlain’s Men before 1603; The King’s Men after 1603) that financed them in production. Our modern sense of copyright did not exist in this period, and so when the decision was made to publish those plays as printed books, it was the stationers rather than the authors who often held publishing rights to the work.

A second reason concerns timing. Shakespeare had died in 1616, and so the 36 printed plays of The First Folio were published posthumously. They were only printed because members of Shakespeare’s acting company, interested stationers, and possible unnamed intermediaries, saw to it that a collected set of his printed plays was made.

A third reason concerns transmission. To print a play in this period was a labour-intensive act. Master printers oversaw a team of apprentices and journeymen who would set the type by hand, select individual letters (or sorts), arrange them line by line (known as composing), enter and lock them into a square (a forme), ink the type and ultimately (with no small amount of physical effort), pull the arm and print the sheets. These sheets would then be folded, cut and sewn into gatherings to make a book. In short, a hand-pressed book such as The First Folio was not simply the author’s words in print, but the author’s words transmitted by others into print.

A final point on Jaggard: By 1623, William Jaggard had gone blind. As such, it is not surprising that we see his son’s name on the title page, especially as Isaac would take over his father’s business. But to ignore William is a mistake. It was William Jaggard who had started to gather Shakespeare plays as early as 1619, likely purchasing the rights from other stationers. William was vital to the printing of The First Folio, and yet his name isn’t found on the titlepage. It is others who are given prominence.

If readers wonder why Shakespeareans continually battle over the textual history of his famous plays, the title page of the 1623 First Folio might offer an answer. In those three textual statements (and the engraved portrait offers its own scholarly battleground) we are given the perfect storm: enough information to tease us into reconstructing the past, and an equal number of questions to remind us of the impossibility of the re-assemblage. While we may not solve the enigmas posed by the Folio titlepage, the search for answers makes us aware of the complexities of the acts and individuals responsible for writing plays and making books.

Scott Schofield is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Huron University College. He is also the Lead Curator for ‘So Long Lives This’: A Celebration of Shakespeare’s Life and Works, 1616-2016, an exhibition at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.