Clippings: First Folio helps us ‘press flesh’ with the Bard

Don’t tell my cats …  but if my house were burning I would have a split second of hesitation choosing between them and my facsimile copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Don’t worry. I would definitely save the cats first (all four of them … and the dog … and the lizard). Exiled to a desert island? I would definitely pack my First Folio. Or if I were one of those book memorizer people in the book-burning world of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”? Ditto.
A real First Folio — not a facsimile, like my copy — a real First Folio, one of only 230 known to be in existence, will come to Middlebury College early in February, as one of the first stops on its tour of the U.S. from the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Why should we care? Well, there’s what it says in the Introduction to my facsimile edition: “The King James Bible and the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays are the two greatest books in the cultural history of the English-speaking peoples.” There’s that.
After all, without the First Folio we’d be missing about half of Shakespeare’s plays, including “As You Like It,” “The Tempest,” “Twelfth Night” and “Macbeth.” A world without “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” would truly be “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” Do not sign me up.
But the argument about “greatness” always makes me feel a bit like I’m about to have my knuckles whacked by a pince-nez wearing, ultra-strict school master. Or worse yet, be lectured at by some wind bag of a pedant.
We should care about the First Folio and the collected works of Shakespeare because: The plays are powerful. The plays are beautiful. They make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. They contain pretty much the most glorious words ever uttered in the English tongue. They make you feel and understand. They entertain.
A world without the plays in the First Folio would be a grayer, sadder, thinner world. A tamer world. Full of less truth. A world more devoid of wildness.
If you have any doubt about the enduring power of Shakespeare (that’s “power” to move and entertain not stuffy “greatness”) don’t miss the next time fifth-graders from around Addison County do another of their 30-minute productions. Two years ago, I was mesmerized to watch my younger daughter glide across the stage carrying her candle and saying, “Out damn spot!” as the driven-mad-by-guilt Lady Macbeth. But it wasn’t just that parent pride that makes you annoyingly love everything your kid does. Every kid on that stage from all the different schools did a great job as cloaks and hats and swords were passed from one kid to another, signifying that another child was taking up a role. You could follow the story, fifth-grade diction and all. And it was gripping. Lo all these many “Macbeth’s” later, I was still on the edge of my seat.
But why the First Folio itself? Why not scoop up the cat and run with no second thoughts? Why not any old collected Shakespeare — of which there are legion?
Kristin Linklater, renowned teacher of voice for the actor and cofounder of Shakespeare and Company, said it best: Shakespeare’s language is “a language 400 years younger than ours.” Not older. Younger.
Shakespeare died April 23, 1616. Queen Elizabeth I was already dead. Her distant cousin James was on the throne. The First Folio came out in 1623. In Shakespeare’s time, printing was still relatively new, a little over a hundred years old, the great technological revolution of its age (along with realizing you truly didn’t fall off the edge of the world and get eaten by sea serpents when you went past Cape Bojador).
Because printing was still so new, spelling was often by ear. There weren’t really dictionaries. Things weren’t standardized. The language was young, raw, in flux.
When I flip through my First Folio, I get that same feeling of newness, of rawness, of youth. I can feel more like the text is a script for production. It’s not weighed down by footnotes and explanations. Editors aren’t telling me where a scene is set. I have to read the scene, hear what’s described, and figure out where we are using my mind and my imagination.
I love the kooky range of spellings. The seemingly random italicizations. The odd punctuations, that many theater artists feel bring you just one shade closer to those earliest productions. It’s as if you can hear echoes of those first actors in those earliest of English stages. I love the wigged out s’s that look like f’s. I love the 17th century typography that always looks a little bit roughed up around the edges. I could go on and on. It’s kind of like people who want to “Feel the Bern” by hugging Bernie. Sometimes you just want to  press flesh to feel closer to the thing that moves you.
The First Folio reminds me of the startling newness of so much that goes with Shakespeare. Blank verse — first made palatable and powerful, first made better than dog trot, by Shakespeare’s rival Christopher Marlowe (like Shakespeare the son of a working man, brilliant, unpredictable, Marlowe died in a tavern brawl, knifed, they say, through the eye; some suspected he was a spy; who knows?). Real professional theaters — the first ones got built in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Before that, actors made do with inn yards and the great halls of great houses. Real professional actors — before that, actors got kicked around a lot and run out of town.
The First Folio also reminds us of how so many of the most important things in life are fragile, subject to enormous changes at the last moment, subject to human error and to chance. Being a guy of his time, Shakespeare thought that his poems were going to Make His Name Go Down Forever in Human History. So he carefully guided his poems — but not his plays — through publication.
Alone among Elizabethan playwrights, satirist Ben Jonson made sure his plays got published, perfectly proofread down to the last jot.
Shakespeare died, leaving no complete published plays behind. There were various versions of some of the plays floating around. Some more or less authentic. Some the “acting version.” Some loosely pirated. But it took two theater buddies of Shakespeare’s, John Heminge and Henry Condell, to sit down, collect the various manuscripts (undoubtedly), quartos and folios of the individual plays and bring them all together.
Can you imagine?
I bought my facsimile of the First Folio decades back, in a used bookshop in Berkeley, Calif. Back then I was a struggling theater artist. Dead broke. In those days, I made my living — aside from my glorious six months’ stint as a Wacky Mom on Stilts in a touring circus theater (this is true) — copyediting computer magazines, books on food policy, and Asian histories. In those days, $125 for a used facsimile First Folio might have been $1,000. But I bought it anyway. Some things are just that important.
The First Folio — the genuine article — is touring the United States and coming to Middlebury, as part of a whole host of celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Here’s my advice for how to celebrate.
First, make sure you see the First Folio when it comes to Middlebury.
Second, watch “Shakespeare in Love.” This filmic reimagining of how Shakespeare came to write “Romeo and Juliet” takes you into Shakespeare’s world, onto the streets of Elizabethan England, into the mind of a poet and into the joys and frustrations of playwrights and actors better than just about anything I’ve ever seen. The screenplay is written by a playwright and man of the theater, which explains a lot of what’s right about it.
Third, grab a copy of Shakespeare. Any copy. Any copy at all. Open it up. And read. Don’t read it silently. Read it aloud, maybe with a friend or a kid. Say the words. Say them out loud. And let the words and the story take you. Press flesh with Shakespeare.

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