The Book of William, How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World by Paul Collins is one of those rare nonfiction books is both educational and entertaining. This is a must read for anyone who considers themselves a bibliophile.
Collins takes his readers from a modern day Sotheby’s auction to the 1600’s London and everywhere in between in order to track the first printing of Shakespeare’s works and how this has shaped our literary world. Though I won’t go into great detail (hint, read the book) I will tell you what I learned.
Shakespeare, like other playwrights of his day, did not save his work (for shame!). His older plays were discarded as new ones claimed his attention. Unlike today, mass production of his work did not exist. Therefore when a play was done the scripts were thrown away or sold to private parties who kept them as a part of a private collection or to be sold as individual “books”. It took two friends of the Bard to come up with the idea of gathering the plays to be published in one book or folio (think small coffee table book). Thank goodness for John Heminge and Henry Condell, two actors who had the foresight to publish Shakespeare’s works for posterity. As Collins points outs if it were not for Heminge and Condell “it would be as if the greatest works of English literature had never happened”.
Collins’ book follows one of Shakespeare’s first folios from its infancy to being sold for over 5 million dollars at a London auction house. It is this journey that helps us understand how and why Shakespeare’s works shaped and inspired the literary world. To quote Shakespeare in As you like it:
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances…”