Collectors' fantasy Christmas present it may have become, but Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was a series of headaches before it was anything else. Despite the confidently comprehensive title they gave it, the editors of the First Folio, John Heminges and Henry Condell, were defeated by the task of assembling all of their late colleague's plays: we will never know how many nights' sleep they lost over their failure to secure a copy of Love's Labour's Won, written before 1598 and printed in quarto before 1603, nor what arguments led to the exclusion not just of all Shakespeare's poems and the single scene he wrote for Sir Thomas More but of three late collaborative plays, Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio. (The sorry consequences are clear enough, however: namely, the survival of Pericles only in an abominably printed and unreliable quarto and the permanent loss of both Love's Labour's Won and Cardenio.) Of the plays they were able to track down, not all reached the printers on time - Troilus and Cressida came too late even to be listed on the contents page - and many gave both publishers and typesetters considerable trouble. Some of the copy consisted of printed texts of plays that had already been published individually, causing all sorts of copyright problems, and many of these had been covered in intricate marginal scribblings and interleavings and strikings-out to bring them up to date with subsequent revisions (not all of them authorial), annotations which in some instances baffled the compositors. Of the plays supplied in manuscript, some of them in Shakespeare's own handwriting, five or six seem to have been sufficiently difficult to decipher for the publishers to commission the professional scribe Ralph Crane to prepare fresh transcripts, and even these were sometimes misread during typesetting. Judging from this, from Shakespeare's signatures on legal documents, and from the few holograph pages we have of his scriptwriting (part of his contribution to Sir Thomas More), the claim in Heminges and Condell's prefatory epistle that Shakespeare's 'mind and hand went together, and what he thought he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers' seems to have been merely conventionally figurative praise of the author's facility rather than a literal description of his foul papers.
LRB 15 November 2001 | PDF Download