First Folio Redux

This is not the first time we have blogged about Shakespeare’s First Folio and it won’t be the last. With the quatercentenary of the publication of this famous old book just months away (8 November) we are going to see more celebrations around the world of Shakespeare, most markedly in this week’s convention of the Shakespeare Association of America, meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The list of books inspired by The Book was marked with reviews this past week of Shakespeare’s Book by scholar and historian Chris Laoutaris, and Bardolators worldwide can track the growing First Folio frenzy of activity on a website dedicated to the anniversary, at Folio 400.

Much is made of the act of literary magnanimity with which Shakespeare’s actor colleagues, John Heminge and Henry Condell, toiled to ensure that three dozen of his plays survived to posterity when only half that number had been published during his lifetime. While there is no doubting either the affection or the respect that they retained for their old friend and fellow actor – he had died seven years before the First Folio appeared – there is an intriguing suggestion in Mr Laoutaris’ book that the reputation preservation that was inspiring them may have been as much for the actor who created so many of Shakespeare’s most famous parts, Richard Burbage. It may be that that towering talent had an even higher profile in the public imagination than did the playwright himself, all the more so for his death having been even more recent, just four years before publication. The commercial iron was still hot.

In comparing that commercial environment with the world we live in 400 years later, we can only marvel at how Shakespeare himself might respond to the challenge today of “staging” a performance of Macbeth, for example (one of the plays “recovered” through the curation and publication activities of Heminge and Condell). Even before the advent of the digital age, the technologies of film and audio had opened the world of playwrighting to a world of new audiences, enabling not only the transmission of live performances but also their recording for posterity, enabling a far greater reach for Heminge’s and Condell’s magnanimity than they would ever have imagined.

And now here we are in 2023, with the digital dimension exploding with virtual and augmented technologies, 3D imaging, the vast potential of Artificial Intelligence and a deepening appreciation of the global audience for theatrical experience moving beyond any definition of an “audience” to something far more fluid, diverse, and nuanced. It’s not just that we have brought more people to a space in which a play happens, but we are moving through dimensions of space and time and sentiments to bring the play, the story, the idea to anybody and everybody, everywhere.

The multi-dimensional and multi-axial reality of stories being developed now is moving to a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes authorship. The modern audience’s increasing engagement with the dramatic process of Pick & Mix & Match can only enhance the qualities that, for centuries, have defined the essence of Shakespearean genius: universality and magnanimity. He exercised the technologies of his day in celebrating the wonders and weaknesses of all human nature, sharing them largely without judgement and with a richness of perspective that we can still treasure today.

And before we break our arms patting ourselves on the back for all that our modern technologies of immersive theatre can do to confer ownership of humanity’s story on people everywhere, let’s ask this inspiring question.

Given what we have achieved in delivering Shakespeare’s legacy into 2023, what might we be enabled to conceive of the achievements of future generations – of the Heminges and Condells of the next 400 years?

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