Shakespeare's Book: The Story Behind the First Folio and the Making of Shakespeare

Image of Shakespeare's Book: The Story Behind the First Folio and the Making of Shakespeare
Release Date: 
April 25, 2023
Pegasus Books
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Shakespeare’s Book by Chris Laoutaris is a must read for anyone with even a slight passing fancy for Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare’s Book by Chris Laoutaris is a must read for anyone with even a slight passing fancy for Shakespeare. It is not about William Shakespeare, per se, but details how the First Folio came into being.

Laoutaris takes a clever approach to the layout of this book by setting it in Acts, instead of Parts. Potato / Potahto, the Acts are Parts, but cleverly reworded.

In the prologue, Laoutaris explains, “Shakespeare’s Book is the story of, arguably, the world’s most influential secular book.” From here he goes into historical detail of the book, published in 1623 that included 36 plays by Shakespeare. Here he discusses “the origins of his book, the volume that gave birth to the very idea of ‘Shakespeare’ not simply as author, but as man and cultural icon.”

The 20-page prologue delves into the politics of the era as well as the numerous people involved with the development of the book. The entire work is peppered with illustrations of these people as well as pages from the folio.

“Act One 1619 The Year of the ‘False Folio’” takes the reader through that year and the beginning of the plans. The chapters of Act One start the saga with the deaths in 1619 of two of England’s most popular and respected actors: Richard Burbage, “the greatest actor of the age . . .” and Richard Cowley, fellow actor and neighbor of Burbage.

Two of the most important persons responsible for taking the idea of the book through production and publication are John Heminges and Henry Condell, who were fellow actors with Shakespeare and close friends to Burbage. They want to honor him in the best way possible—and the idea of producing Shakespeare’s works in one place that also honored the playwright was born, plays in which Burbage gave his best performances.

In order to make the book a reality, the reader is introduced to the multitude of patrons solicited to participate, while at the same time the King’s Men acting troupe is faced with the loss of their very careers, when a ban on public playing arises.

Referred to by Laoutaris as “The Courtiers’ War” between George Villiers, Marquess of Buckingham, and William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (supporter of the King’s Men), this ban throws the acting troupe into turmoil. Add to this the issuance of a False Folio of Shakespeare’s works and Heminges and Condell face two difficult situations.

At this time, playwrights did not always own the rights to their own work. The “Stationers’ Company, the body that regulated the printing and book trade, were pivotal to [a book’s] manufacture . . .” so enter William Jaggard, printer, and soon to be a member of the folio supporters, a man who possesses many of the rights to Shakespeare’s plays.

The requirement to print and publish works of literature by this body becomes even more confusing when so many of Shakespeare’s works are traded back and forth among the publishers of the day. Plans for the creation and publication of the folio were further delayed by the ongoing ban on acting and the theft of several plays.

“Act Two 1621, Negotiating the First Folio,” discusses the care taken to acquire the works and begin the process. Here Laoutaris introduces more new characters who play important roles in moving the production forward. These characters come to life as the result of Laoutaris’ in-depth research into the backgrounds and politics of each.

And the research into the politics of the era casts a dark shadow over the development of the folio, in particular the politics of royal marriages. King James I sits on the throne at this time, and he desires to make amends with the Spanish King, Philip IV, through the marriage of James’ son, Charles, to Philip’s daughter, Anne, known as the “Spanish Infanta.” Throughout England, the issue of this marriage in the Protestant and Catholic populations is incendiary.

As many of the characters described in Shakespeare’s Book play roles in both creating the folio, and making or breaking this “Spanish Match,” moving forward with the plans for the folio frequently hit holes in the road, thus frequently stopping and restarting the effort. If one learns nothing more about this era, the saga outlined throughout the book regarding the Spanish Match is educational.

“Act Three 1622, Printing the First Folio” is an amazing education on how printing was accomplished in the 17th century. Here Laoutaris provides many illustrations of printed pages and how they came to be. “Scenes from a seventeenth-century printing shop,” take the reader through each step in the interminably long process just to produce one page of text. The editing, correcting, and reprinting process alone could take days to remedy that one page.

“Act Four 1623, Making History Making Shakespeare: Finishing the First Folio” takes us back to the problems with the Spanish Match and its failure to materialize, an issue that sends King James I into a fit of rage as he tries to save the situation. The Protestant side is ecstatic, while the Catholic side is worried.

As the politics of the era play out, the publication of the First Folio progresses slowly. At the same time, there was concern afoot among the King’s Men regarding what plays they could or should produce. Not wanting to insult the king’s foreign policy as he tries to rekindle the Spanish Match, they must determine what plays to perform while still working toward the publication of the book.

As the publication approaches its successful end, Laoutaris raises the question, “aside from authoring the plays contained within it, did William Shakespeare himself influence the creation of his own book?” An interesting question to be sure. Laoutaris deals with this question in “Act Five, William Shakespeare’s Will in His Book.” Here he brings Oxford and its role in Shakespeare’s life into the fray.

Through Act Five, Laoutaris introduces this concept of Shakespeare’s role in his own Folio through a mysterious border at Shakespeare’s London lodgings, and what, if any role, he played in the publication. It remains a mystery, but Laoutaris’ research brings us tantalizing clues, as he ends this act with, “This provocative idea brings us closer than we ever have been to sensing the hand of William Shakespeare—his very touch—on the making of his own book.”

In the “Epilogue 1623 and Beyond,” Laoutaris brings us through the 17th century to current day with how the First Folio travels around the globe, through academia, museums, book stores, and individuals. “The makers of the First Folio could little have imagined how, in preserving and cultivating that legacy in a manner that would create ‘Shakespeare’ as we have all come to know him today, they planted an ever-flourishing textual tree whose living leaves would be intertwined, in vital and legible ways, with the making of the modern world.”

To say this is a book to be read and reread, and have a place on the library shelf, would be a major understatement.