- Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book by Emma Smith
Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book.
Oxford UP, 2016. 320 Pp.
TERENTIANUS, THE THIRD-CENTURY GRAMMARIAN, famously proclaimed that books have their own fates according to the dispositions of their readers (“pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli”). In Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, Emma Smith—who is also the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s First Folio (2016)—explores the readers, the reception, and the significance of one of the most singular volumes in the English canon. She starts with an account of the first recorded purchaser of the First Folio, Sir Edward Dering, whose book of expenses is also a record of his social and political progress—a case of Renaissance self-fashioning through consumption. His purchase of the First Folio also dovetailed with other hobbies, which included the performance of plays adapted by Dering himself for amateur productions in his household. Smith uses Dering as one of the pillars in the opening of her overall narrative structure, adding a more recent user of the First Folio at the other end of her book.
Smith leaves few pages unturned or bindings unexamined. It is difficult to summarize all the things Smith’s book does with the First Folio and the fascinating episodes she explores in relation to its production, circulation, and reception. The complex history of the First Folio is, of course, the history of Shakespeare’s elevation to the altars of the canon, of the political, cultural, and economic capital invested in it, and of the communities who sought to appropriate it. Smith describes the diverse agents within the overlapping worlds of the public stage and the publishing business that facilitated its production. Patrons, actors, and publishers, among others, are all brought forward to demonstrate how they contributed to produce a printed artifact that circulated throughout far-reaching networks in both chronological and geographical terms. The author and his readers are but one convergence among the many encounters of individuals and communities that have shaped interpretations of the First Folio over the past four hundred years. For example, Smith examines the copy deposited now at the Glasgow University Library as part of the Cary family networks, which included Ben Jonson. This [End Page 201] is, in the first place, an early episode in the public perception of Shakespeare as a towering modern in competition with the ancients. It is also an important step towards the further canonization of Shakespeare during the eighteenth century. Smith’s book contributes to a detailed understanding of the role played by the First Folio and its reception in Shakespeare’s progress from his status as national poet, on towards his emergence as a universal author, and his current status as a fetish of Anglo-American global culture.
Many First Folios circulated through the same paths that came to redefine the international balance of economic and political power: the fate of those copies that left Britain towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries coincided with the creation of great American library collections. In turn, the growing global weight of the Japanese economy in the 1980s took twelve First Folios to the Kodama Memorial Library in Tokyo. In tracing the fortunes of the global circulation of First Folios, Smith’s book complements other recent volumes that examine the emergence of World Literature as a new paradigm for the discipline of Comparative Literature. Underpinning this new order—what some might call CompLit 2.0—is the global hegemony of Anglo-American literature within the publishing business and academic institutions. In contrast, for instance, to Barbara Fuch’s The Poetics of Piracy, or Emily Apter’s Against World Literature (both published in 2013), Smith’s book is less openly polemical, which is why it dovetails so smoothly with more confrontational approaches. Whatever one’s agenda, the fact is that the remaining copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio have become global cultural treasures whose value tends to fluctuate with the circulation of political and economic capital...