The Miraculous First Folio

Sir Simon Russell Beale

Two friends of mine, a married couple, used to host an annual party to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday. They were, needless to say, life-long fans of the playwright and, as it happens, immensely generous hosts. So they were happy to provide limitless amounts of alcohol, a delicious dinner, recitals, poetry and the performance of songs around the grand piano and, at the climax of the evening, a ferociously difficult quiz about their hero that was taken very seriously and became, as the wine kicked in, very competitive.

But the festivities always began as we gathered around a bust of Shakespeare in the garden, where a toast was proposed, not to the birthday boy, but to his two colleagues – John Heminge and Henry Condell.

Simon Russell Beale in Timon of Athens, National Theatre, 2012.

I’m ashamed to say that for years I had only the sketchiest idea of who these two men were and why their achievement was significant. I know better now, of course. It’s astonishing (and rather scary) to think that, without Heminge and Condell, we would probably have lost half of Shakespeare’s plays, all of which have had a profound impact on our global literary culture. I personally cannot imagine a world without Prospero and Ariel, Macbeth and his wife, for example. If Heminge and Condell had done no more than save these characters – and many more, of course – from oblivion, then they would be more than justified in expecting all the praise we could heap on them.

There is more to thank them for though. When I was asked to act in Timon of Athens at the National Theatre in London, I became mesmerised by the early history of this strange, broken-backed play. It seems that it was hurriedly squeezed into the First Folio at the last moment – which explains why it appears to be unfinished. The painstaking work of an array of academics has shown that it filled space that had been left blank, because the editors were having a problem in obtaining permission to print Troilus and Cressida. This latter play was, in the end, included in the collection, but Timon of Athens was already safely in place, despite the shabby state it was in, alongside other, more polished pieces.

This sequence of events allows us a glimpse into the world that Heminge and Condell carried out as Shakespeare’s first, independent editors; and editing Shakespeare, tedious though it may sound, has now, after four hundred years, a long, proud and eventful history. And it all started with the First Folio. This astonishing book is not only a collection of some of the greatest plays ever written. It is not only evidence of the love and respect that Shakespeare elicited from his friends and colleagues. It is also a mystery, a puzzle, an achievement that shows us, if we choose to dig deep enough, a detailed picture of how a genius worked. And the more we find out about that – about Shakespeare’s revisions, collaborations, theatrical instincts – the more miraculous the Folio appears.

Sir Simon Russell Beale
10th February 2021