First Folio; first encounter.

Professor Farah Karim-Cooper

I studied and taught Shakespeare for 25 years before I finally got to touch a First Folio. I remember the day in 2018 when it arrived at Shakespeare’s Globe, where I am Head of Research. It was the ‘Munro’ copy, one that we would put on display in our exhibition. It arrived in a box, wrapped in acid-free tissue paper. Our collections manager opened it gently. ‘I don’t have immaculate manuscript gloves,’ I thought. This isn’t just a book. I had seen many facsimiles of it and used them in my research. I had studied countless digital images and photographs of the First Folio, but this was the first time that it would meet my skin.

I am an archival scholar. I have examined countless rare books and several manuscripts at the British Library, National Archives, the Huntington Library in California and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., so why was I nervous about this book? The first thing I did, oddly enough, was sniff it. I am not sure why but I think I wanted to smell the words. I remember as a child smelling all the books I read. I loved the odour of the inked paper; for me reading was such an olfactory pleasure. But mostly, I couldn’t wait to hold the Folio in my hands and feel its textures between my fingertips, hear the faded sepia-coloured pages turn. All of a sudden, I felt insatiably greedy. I felt the urge to take it up and find a quiet spot to devour my favourite plays, as if reading them and digesting them from this copy would tell me something new, something I didn’t already know perhaps.

The First Folio was not printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime; it was published in 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death. So, in many ways it wouldn’t really matter that I hadn’t actually seen a Folio up close before now because my experience of Shakespeare had always been mediated by others: the editors of the single editions I’d studied at university and the actors and directors of the many productions I have seen occupied that gap of time and space between me and the playwright. The glory of Shakespeare’s work lies not only in the polyvocality and intersectionality of the ideas there, but also in the often frustrating illusiveness of the writer himself. Many biographers, teachers and enthusiasts spend ages musing and speculating about, or even fetishizing the few linked-together stories of his life. 

But the reality is we know less about the man than we are ready to accept. An entire town is built around and thrives upon this desire to meet Shakespeare the man, to know him personally, to trace his boyhood steps, sit by the river Avon under the willow tree close by the chapel where he permanently rests, or even touch a wall in the house where he was born. 

Unfortunately, there is no surviving Shakespeare diary, no manuscript of any of his plays (we only have what’s likely to be a brief contribution he made to the multi-authored manuscript play, Sir Thomas More). We have to satisfy ourselves instead with six degrees of textual separation, which is the promise of Shakespeare’s First Folio. The versions of the plays assembled in the Folio were selected and corrected by his dearest friends from within his company of players, John Heminge and Henry Condell. They knew him best, spending their working lives hearing the playwright’s ideas, seeing or hearing first drafts and getting inside the skin of the plays. The epistle to ‘the great Variety of Readers’ enticingly gives us a tiny glimpse into the intimacy of their friendship:

It had bene a thing, we confesse, worthie to have bene wished, that the author himselfe had lived to have set forth, and overseen his owne writings; but since it hath bin ordain’d otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envie his Friends, the office of their care, and paine, to have collected & publish’d them…

The ‘care’ and ‘paine’ taken by Shakespeare’s fellow players to preserve and present his works mark their devotion to him. 

That day I held the Folio for the first time was indeed the closest I would get to Shakespeare in an embodied sense, despite the thousands of other hands that had touched these pages over the centuries. Shakespeare knew that reading was a full-bodied and multi-sensory activity; it was how reading was talked about in his own day because the hands, as well as the eyes and ears were viewed as conduits for knowledge and ideas. Encountering and enjoying Shakespeare can be achieved through so many different pathways or media in the twenty-first century, from live performance to audio book to YouTube, to touch screen apps, even to hashtag versions and text messaging, but when I held this book at Shakespeare’s Globe on that day, I felt closer to Shakespeare – a bit like touching his face through a veil. 

Professor Farah Karim-Cooper
16th February 2021

Farah Karim-Cooper

Professor Farah Karim-Cooper is Professor at King’s, Co-Director Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, and President of the Shakespeare Association of America.