Coming to life: David Warner in one of Peter Hall’s productions of “Hamlet”

The actor’s text

Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed. The First Folio has enabled that, in big ways and small
November 1, 2023

Few dramatic monologues are as familiar or as fetishised as Hamlet’s meditations on suicide. In nearly 30 years of thinking and writing about theatre—I started young—I have watched more than 40 actors deliberate in iambic pentameter on whether to end their lives.

The challenge for a performer is to hit one monologue on the subject—“O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt”—in the second scene, while leaving enough in the tank for the notorious “To be or not to be” at least an hour later. The best I have seen were David Tennant and Paapa Essiedu, both in Royal Shakespeare Company productions, who made me feel I was hearing Shakespeare’s overdetermined words for the first time. 

Each of my 40-something Hamlets, however, had one thing in common. Each, reaching the climax of their first monologue, declared their frustration with religious prohibitions against suicide: “that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ’gainst self-slaughter!”

This needn’t have been the case, historically speaking. For this line we have to thank Shakespeare’s actors John Heminges and Henry Condell and their success in collecting a fresh text of Hamlet for their 1623 anthology of his plays. We call this anthology the “First Folio”—Heminges and Condell called it Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies and published it seven years after his death.

Without the First Folio, we would have been stuck with the text of Hamlet as it appears in the “Second Quarto”, a cheap version probably rushed out to counter the success of a pirated edition, the notorious “First Quarto” of 1603. Even the Second Quarto suffers from typesetting errors—among the most egregious, its version of this monologue. Had they been working from the Second Quarto, Tennant and Essiedu would have graced the RSC stage lamenting the Almighty’s opposition not to self-slaughter—but to seale-slaughter.

As the Shakespearian scholar Jonathan Bate has observed, “ecclesiastical law as shaped by the Bible says nothing about the clubbing of baby seals.” We have yet to see a conservationist production of Hamlet take advantage of this variant (although its time will surely come). Thanks to the First Folio, it is the slaughter of the self, not the seal, that preoccupies modern Hamlets on stage.

The history of the First Folio is inextricable from the history of Shakespeare as performance

The history of the First Folio is inextricable from the history of Shakespeare as performance. Thirty-six plays are printed in the volume, though only 35 are listed in its catalogue of contents. (Heminges and Condell obtained the rights to Troilus and Cressida so late it was squeezed in after printing had begun on the catalogue.) Eighteen of those plays owe their survival purely to the Folio—among them The Tempest, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.

Dr Peter Kirwan is editor of the academic journal Shakespeare Bulletin and a leading expert on Shakespeare’s production history: as he puts it, “Without the Folio, there’s no witches around a cauldron or an actor reaching out for an invisible dagger; there’s no Prospero abjuring his magic; there’s no Cleopatra dying in her finery with an asp clasped to her chest.”

As important as transmitting the texts, however, was the Folio’s role in establishing Shakespeare as a writer who could single-handedly provide an acting company with a complete repertoire. In his lifetime, Shakespeare’s contemporary Gabriel Harvey had praised him for the ability to reach both “younger sorte” and “wiser sort” as he ranged from comedy and tragedy; the Folio divided Shakespeare’s plays in the catalogue into sections for “Comedies”, “Histories” and “Tragedies”. This imposed genre distinction remains controversial, but it established Shakespeare’s global brand as the playwright for all seasons.

“How does any writer stand the test of time?” asks Laurie Maguire, professor emeritus at Magdalen College, Oxford, when I speak to her about the impact of the Folio. “You need an anthology. And you need a big enough choice of plays to maintain a performance history as plays go in and out of fashion, or as different plays speak to different cultures.”

Maguire is the author of several groundbreaking books on Shakespeare, including Suspect Texts: The “Bad” Quartos and their Contexts and is one of few Folio experts versed in the realities of contemporary theatre practice. Her graduate studies were followed by a year as dramaturg to an RSC director, Paul Marcus, and she has served on the board of Shakespeare’s Globe and as a judge for the Olivier Awards. For her, the First Folio is better understood as a set of playtexts to be tested against performance. The Second Quarto of Hamlet, for example, contains some of Shakespeare’s longest runs of poetic imagery; the Folio cuts chunks, but is better paced and more dynamic on stage. 

Maguire points me to the first sighting of the Ghost by Hamlet’s friend Horatio, which is preceded by Horatio’s lengthy speech about describing unnatural portents. In the Folio, this is cut radically. Why? “The Ghost has to enter during Horatio’s speech,” she points out. “The stagecraft depends on the audience keeping their eyes on Horatio just long enough to jump when the Ghost speaks. But if Horatio goes on too long, they’re bound to notice the actor playing the Ghost sneaking on stage. It’s a thematically important speech, but gets sacrificed for theatrical reasons—so our attention doesn’t start wandering and so we notice the very human, material, physical arrival of the ghost.”

For some, the First Folio is better understood as a set of playtexts to be tested against performance

The Folio is full of these moments of stagecraft. As Kirwan points out, film directors love the scene when Hamlet spots his Norwegian rival Fortinbras moving through Denmark and delivers the speech, “How all occasions do inform against me…” Kenneth Branagh chose to break the first half of his 1996 film after this mini-climax; it’s a great opportunity for visual parallels between the two young men, especially with film’s freedom to range across geography and time. Theatre, however, imposes different limitations. So between Quarto and Folio, Shakespeare’s collaborators cut Hamlet from Fortinbras’s entry scene. Maguire suggests that Richard Burbage, the impresario who first played the role, would already have been on stage for a demanding run of scenes at this point: “he probably cut the speech because he just needed a break.”

Although Maguire suggests that the Folio offers theatre companies the sense of a full repertoire, she is less comfortable describing it as a “Complete Works”. In 2007, the RSC commissioned its own edition by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, on the principle that the Folio alone could provide the company with its base text; other academics are sceptical. When I speak to David Scott Kastan, a professor emeritus at Yale and author of Shakespeare and the Book, he points out that Shakespeare’s bibliography has been continually changing since the ink dried on the First Folio in 1623. A “Third Folio”, published in 1663-64, promised “seven playes, never before Printed in Folio”. “Unfortunately, only one of them was actually by Shakespeare,” says Scott Kastan, referring to Pericles, but that didn’t stop Oxford’s Bodleian Library shortly afterwards selling off its First Folio, termed “superfluous” in curatorial records, to update it with this new, improved, ultimately fraudulent edition. (It reclaimed its original copy in 1905.)

The First Folio, on the other hand, lacks some plays now attributed to Shakespeare—and does not include his poems, which were not regularly published alongside the plays until the editions of the 18th century. “Every one of those books that calls themselves ‘The Complete Shakespeare’ differs from every other one,” says Kastan. “And I think that’s a kind of wonderful, frustrating, infuriating, provocative lunacy. We want completion with Shakespeare. And we can’t get it, because the conditions of writing don’t allow for it.” As he points out, no sooner had the RSC’s edition of the Folio been published than RSC directors went straight back to cobbling together their own playscript compromises between Quarto and Folio.

Among the theatremakers who know how to mix and match their texts is Nicholas Hytner, the former artistic director of the National Theatre. But he wasn’t always that way: Hytner belongs to a generation of directors whose early work was shaped by the rising popularity of the Folio as a performance text.

As a student of English at Cambridge in the 1970s, Hytner remembers being taught that “a conflation of both Quarto and Folio was the way you’re going to get closest to what Shakespeare might originally have intended.” Productions of the era responded by loading their scripts with as many lines as could be harvested from both texts: “I can remember sitting through the first production at the National Theatre on the South Bank, in 1976, which was Peter Hall’s Hamlet, well over four hours long and a conflation of all available Hamlet texts, three Quartos of Hamlet, and the Folio, every possible line included. And while it was thought to be pretty burdensome for the audience, nobody was challenging that it was the academically or scholarly respectable thing to do.”

Two years later, Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells began publishing their radical “New Oxford” editions of Shakespeare. Like Maguire, they suggested that the Folio offered a version of the texts shaped by the realities of stagecraft. For Hytner, it was a tempting opportunity to jettison the Quartos. 

“If you work in theatre,” Hytner says, “it makes total sense, intuitively, because unless you’re working with Harold Pinter or Martin McDonagh, almost every other playwright in my experience will deliver a playbook that will evolve in rehearsal, will evolve between first preview and opening night, and might even evolve again during the run and be a different play by the closing night. You just know that’s how plays are, they’re alive. And they change as actors discover what is or isn’t playable, as playwrights respond to what’s happening on stage.”

When it came to performance, the idea of the Folio as the “perfected” text turned out to be too simple

Taylor and Wells included two separate texts of King Lear, on the basis that Quarto and Folio could not be reconciled. Hytner and his peers embraced the latter. But when it came to performance, the idea of the Folio as the “perfected” text turned out to be too simple. “When I did King Lear for the RSC in the early 1990s, I decided we’d simply do Folio and ignore the Quarto,” Hytner tells me. “That fell apart. There’s two scenes in the Quarto of King Lear that are simply not in the Folio, including the mock trial.” (This is the scene in which the maddened and usurped King Lear play-acts a trial of his daughters for treachery.) “And it’s brilliant. Nobody wants to do King Lear without the mock trial. It’s gripping and golden in theatre. So, after two weeks of rehearsal, we were doing the Folio King Lear plus the mock trial from the Quarto, by which time the whole business of being piously attached to one text over the other fell apart.” 

Hytner credits this moment of realisation with the success of his later production of Timon of Athens in 2012 starring Simon Russell Beale. “Timon of Athens would not have been in the Folio—it would simply have been a lost play—if the editors of the Folio hadn’t struggled with the rights to Troilus and Cressida. They needed something in that space, they dredged up Timon of Athens. Plainly it was unfinished; plainly half of it was by Thomas Middleton. But once you accept that, it frees you to completely reinvent it. You have to write new bits. And that’s so fun. You feel disreputably close to being a collaborator with Shakespeare. It’s so satisfying.” His version, which interpolated lines from other Shakespeare plays and offered a post-crash satire on financial collapse, was a landmark hit.

The mock trial in King Lear is not the only iconic moment in Shakespeare omitted from the Folio. Sophie Duncan is the author of a new production history of Romeo and Juliet (reviewed on page 60). She points out that this play’s prologue is among its most famous sections—“Two households, both alike in dignity”—but is missing entirely in the Folio. It survives thanks only to earlier Quarto editions. John Milton was so attached to this prologue that he wrote it into his copy of the Folio by hand.

Like most academics I speak to, Duncan also highlights the significance of the Folio’s imposition of sharp genre categories on Shakespeare’s work. His plays are, in her words, “far more mobile and slippery” than these simple categories of comedy, history and tragedy allow: “Henry IV, Part 1 is a history that behaves like a comedy. Richard II is a history that behaves like a tragedy.” In performance terms, the construction of the “tragic” genre in the First Folio has established a canon of key roles for (traditionally) male actors: Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear and a handful of others.

One mainstream theory suggests that this categorisation may have been an effort by Shakespeare’s friends to assert his credibility as a highbrow literary figure, since playwrights who roved between different genres within the same work were sometimes perceived as muddying class boundaries. (The aristocrat Philip Sidney notoriously complained in 1595 that some plays “be neither right tragedies nor right comedies, mingling kings and clowns… by their mongrel tragi-comedy.”)

Chris Laoutaris, associate professor at the Shakespeare Institute and the author of Shakespeare’s Book, a new history of the men who created the First Folio, even sees similar pretensions in the Folio’s stage directions. Ralph Crane, the compositor who laid out drafts for at least five of the plays in his own hand, is probably responsible for what are known as “massed entries”—complete lists of characters entering in each scene before anyone utters a line of dialogue. Misunderstood as stage directions, they are responsible for centuries of Shakespeare productions opened by formal processions, particularly in courtly scenes. Laoutaris tells me that Crane was probably borrowing a format from early modern scripts of the philosopher-playwright Seneca. There could be no more prestigious literary model.

The First Folio helped make Shakespeare a star, but another celebrity may have propelled its course. Burbage, the actor who played Hamlet, had died three years previously—Laoutaris argues that publication was planned to cash in on popular grief. Those seeking to learn more about the history of the First Folio could do no better than to read Laoutaris’s book: it is lively and impeccably researched. But the best test of its legacy remains the success of the plays that owe their survival to the work of Heminges and Condell. There are three major British productions of Macbeth alone this winter. For this, we should thank the First Folio on its 400th birthday.