Four hundred years ago, in the year 1623, a literary milestone emerged — the publication of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies, famously known as The First Folio. This compendium of 36 plays was a posthumous tribute to William Shakespeare by his actor colleagues and friends, John Heminge(s) and Henry Condell.
The First Folio has since transcended its historical roots to become one of the most coveted and influential works of literature globally. A testament to its significance, a First Folio fetched a staggering $9,978,000 at a 2020 Christie’s auction in New York.
The First Folio – a collector’s item
During Shakespeare’s era, plays were not typically thought of as literature; they were commonly printed in small, inexpensive ‘quarto’ formats. However, Heminge(s) and Condell departed from this norm by presenting a grand compilation of Shakespeare’s works in the larger and prestigious folio format. Each bound copy cost £1, equivalent to the price of 44 loaves of bread at that time. This choice underscored the esteem in which the Bard was held. Approximately 750–1,000 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folios were printed, and today, over 230 are known to have survived worldwide, in private and public ownership, including holdings by the British Library.
The preservation of half of Shakespeare’s plays, including masterpieces like Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest, can be credited to Heminge(s) and Condell’s meticulous compilation. Drawing on reliable quartos, now-lost manuscripts like prompt books, and ‘foul papers’ (working drafts), they reassured readers that these plays were “perfect of their limbes,” and “absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them.” Despite their efforts, Pericles was omitted, and Troilus and Cressida slipped in without being listed on the contents page—a curious quirk in an otherwise monumental literary endeavour.
Shakespeare as international icon
Beyond the textual content, a striking feature of Shakespeare’s First Folio is Martin Droeshout’s frontispiece engraving of the Bard. Fellow playwright Ben Jonson asserted that it was a remarkably accurate likeness, further immortalising Shakespeare’s visage. The enduring popularity and influence of Shakespeare were foreseen by Jonson in his famous tribute within The First Folio: “He was not of an age, but for all time!” Even so, the extent of Shakespeare’s everlasting impact on literature and culture could hardly have been predicted.
Four hundred years later, Shakespeare’s importance transcends mere literary acclaim; it is a cultural, historical, and even economic cornerstone. The iconic playwright is not just a literary figure, but a symbol deeply woven into the fabric of the area’s identity.
Stratford, the centre of culture – and tourism
Central England, particularly the picturesque town of Stratford-upon-Avon, stands as the cradle of Shakespearean culture. The birthplace of the bard, preserved in its Tudor-era glory, is a pilgrimage site for literature enthusiasts, historians, and tourists alike. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford continues to stage his plays, ensuring that Shakespeare’s cultural legacy thrives in the very place where he once walked.
The annual Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations in Stratford draw visitors from around the world, commemorating the playwright’s legacy with performances, parades, and festivities. This cultural nexus serves as a living testament to the enduring impact of Shakespeare on the region’s identity.
The playwright is not just a literary giant but a lucrative industry. Tourism in Stratford-upon-Avon thrives on the Bard’s legacy. The birthplace, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre attract many thousands of visitors annually, contributing significantly to the local economy. Hotels, restaurants, and shops in the region owe a substantial part of their prosperity to the steady stream of Shakespeare enthusiasts.
Moreover, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) headquartered in Stratford is a cultural powerhouse that not only preserves the Bard’s works but also generates economic activity. The RSC’s productions, both in Stratford and London, draw theatre lovers and tourists, bolstering the region’s economic vitality.
Shakespeare is an integral part of the educational landscape throughout the country. The Bard’s works are a staple in school curricula, ensuring that generations of students grow up immersed in his timeless tales. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust actively engages with educational programmes, fostering a deep appreciation for literature and history among students.
The trust’s outreach extends beyond the classroom, with workshops, exhibitions, and educational events that enrich the cultural and intellectual tapestry of central England. The legacy of Shakespeare serves as an educational pillar, shaping young minds and instilling a sense of pride in the region’s literary heritage.
Shakespeare’s importance is not confined to his era but extends into the annals of history. The Tudor architecture of Stratford-upon-Avon, including the meticulously preserved Shakespeare properties, offers a tangible connection to the past. Visitors can walk the same streets that Shakespeare once walked, creating a living historical experience.
The legacy of Shakespeare is entwined with the broader historical narrative of the region. The Bard’s plays, with their exploration of power, politics, and human nature, reflect the societal nuances of his time. This historical context adds layers of significance to central England, positioning it as a custodian of Shakespearean heritage.
In essence, William Shakespeare is the heartbeat of central England. His literary prowess, cultural impact, economic influence, educational significance, and historical resonance converge to make Shakespeare not just a playwright but a revered figure shaping the very essence of the region. The enduring legacy of Shakespeare remains a source of inspiration, pride, and cultural richness for generations to come.