Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies
James Shapiro: You’re looking at one of the great literary treasures of the world: the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s works.
Anna Deavere Smith: James Shapiro, Professor of English at Columbia University.
James Shapiro: When the First Folio arrived in London’s book stalls, Shakespeare had been dead for seven years. And had this not appeared, the Shakespeare we know and love would have been quite different. We would not have had Macbeth. We would not have had The Tempest.
Anna Deavere Smith: In fact, about half of Shakespeare’s plays were published here for the first time. Surprisingly, though, the first words we encounter on these pages are not Shakespeare’s.
James Shapiro: They’re written by Shakespeare’s fellow dramatist and rival playwright, Ben Jonson. Jonson is describing the famous Droeshout illustration of Shakespeare: the famous receding hairline, the enigmatic expression, the high ruff…
And Jonson, speaking of this illustrator, says, “O, could he but have drawne his wit / As well in brasse, as he hath hit / His face: the Print would then surpasse / All, that was ever writ in brasse. / But since he cannot, Reader, looke / Not on his Picture, but his Booke.”
Anna Deavere Smith: In other words, this portrait cannot convey the wit, the beauty, the genius contained in Shakespeare’s exquisite writing. So, while this portrait has become the most iconic image of the author, the true significance of the First Folio lies in the pages that follow.
James Shapiro: I’ve spent most of my adult life in the archives, and have held many rare books. But none have the aura of a Shakespeare Folio. And there’s something magical about this volume.
End of Transcript
Dr. James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. We gratefully acknowledge the editorial guidance of Dr. Erin Blake and Rachel Dankert, both of The Folger Shakespeare Library.
No copyright: United States