Book Reviews | April 2023 | Alex Johnson

The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio

Bodleian Libraries

Professor Emma Smith and The Making of Shakespeare's First Folio

This weekend there will be so many copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio on display around the world that you would be forgiven for thinking it’s actually as easy to find as Fifty Shades of Grey.

Indeed, until recently people were much more phlegmatic about First Folios. When scholar Sidney Lee put together a list of extant survivals at the start of the 20th century, owners sent their personal copies to him for confirmation through the post. And members of the public library in Plymouth could still borrow a First Folio until the 1830s.

However, as Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, University of Oxford, points out in The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio published by Bodleian Libraries, something like two thirds of the original print run have not made it down to us over the intervening centuries.

This is the second edition of Smith’s book, first published in 2015 and here with a new prologue/travelogue in which she visits the Isle of Bute to investigate a hitherto unknown edition. If you’re looking for a readable guide to the First Folio story, then this is a an excellent choice, not least because it’s very well illustrated. It looks at all the key elements such as the famous portrait and Shakespeare in print before 1623, but also goes beyond the man himself to look at what Smith calls Team Shakespeare, his backers, friends, fellow actors, patrons, printers, publishers and other unnamed individuals who all contributed to its success.

Smith’s most recent book was the excellent Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers (2022), an equally accessible book which appealed to general readers as well as bibliphiles. And here there’s also plenty of interesting detail about the nuts and bolts of how it was actually pulled together, the economics of publishing it, and an atmospheric recreation of the book trade and publishing atmosphere at the time when it came out, including who would have been the eager buyers of this first edition.