His wit can no more lie hid, then it could be lost

September 21, 2015 at 11:06 pm (Asides) (, , , , )

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623 (2)

Title page of the First Folio with copper engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout. Image courtesy of the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

This is my homage to John Heminge and Henrie Condell, actors who worked with Shakespeare, and in 1623 published the most amazing and unprecedented collection of his plays — the First Folio — a single book that saved from oblivion half of Shakespeare’s plays that come down to us from no other source. Without Heminge and Condell, Shakespeare’s wit would have been lost. Here’s what they wrote in the First Folio:

To the great Variety of Readers.

From the most able, to him that can but spell: there you are number’d. We had rather you were weighed; especially, when the fate of all bookes depends upon your capacities and not of your heads alone, but of your purses. Well ! It is now publique, & you wil stand for your priviledges wee know : to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first. That doth best commend a Booke, the Stationer saies. Then, how odde soever your braines be, or your wisedomes, make your licence the same, and spare not. Judge your six-pen’orth, your shillings worth, your five shillings worth at a time, or higher, so you rise to the just rates, and welcome. But, whatever you do, Buy. Censure will not drive a Trade, or make the Jacke go. And though you be a Magistrate of wit, and sit on the Stage at Black-Friers, or the Cock-pit, to arraigne Playes dailie, know, these Playes have had their triall alreadie, and stood out all Appeales ; and do now come forth quitted rather by a Decree of Court, then any purchased letters of commendation.

It had bene a thing, we confesse, worthie to have bene wished, that the author himselfe had lived to have set forth, and overseen his owne writings; but since it hath bin ordain’d otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envie his Friends, the office of their care, and paine, to have collected & publish’d them; and so to have publish’d them, as where (before) you were abused with diverse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious impostors, that expos’d them : even those, are now offer’d to your view cur’d, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he conceived them.

Who, as he was a happie imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers. But it is not our province, who onely gather his works, and give them you, to praise him. It is yours that reade him. And there we hope, to your divers capacities, you will finde enough, both to draw, and hold you: for his wit can no more lie hid, then it could be lost. Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe : And if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him. And so we leave you to other of his Friends, whom if you need, can be your guides: if you neede them not, you can lead yourselves, and others, and such readers we wish him.

John Heminge.
Henrie Condell.

Thank you Heminge and Condell! Really, to have such an impact on language and culture for hundreds of years, simply by doing the thing that Shakespeare himself died without doing — publishing the text of his plays. This preliminary from the First Folio is so interesting. First, you see their hope that people will buy the book so they can recoup something from what must have cost them a huge amount of money and been a big risk to publish. Next, the sweet tribute to Shakespeare, the writer, their friend:

Who, as he was a happie imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers.

And unusual for the time, when plays were seen as transient entertainments, not literature to be read again and again, Heminge and Condell recognize the plays for their literary value and tell you to do just that:

Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe : And if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him.

Also in the First Folio preliminaries is the flowery eulogy from Shakespeare’s peer, the playwright Ben Jonson who gives us the famous line, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”

I am thinking lots about the First Folio lately, as I recently read The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays. It’s about Henry Folger’s obsessive collecting of First Folios (82! count ’em!) and other Shakespeareana and the building of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington… I blogged about my close encounter with a First Folio there a few years ago. I was glad to read more about Folger and his hobby. It’s quite a story… American chutzpah and wealth, eccentricity and obsession, culture clashes, and ultimately foresight and philanthropy. I’ll write about it soon. But it all goes back to Heminge and Condell, because without them, there would be no First Folio, and nothing to fill the Folger’s vast basement vaults.

Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC

Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC

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1 Comment

  1. He was not of an age, but for all time | Or What You Will said,

    […] line is buried deep in Ben Jonson’s effusive eulogy to Shakespeare that appeared in the 1623 First Folio preliminaries (the stuff before the plays). It’s also the inscription that author Andrea Mays […]

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