Image of William Shakespeare from All the World's a Page flyer

All the World’s a Page: 400 Years of Shakespeare in Print

Boston Public Library, July 1-September 30, 2009

“All the World’s a Page” showcased not only the books that were most vital to the education and inspiration of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), but also the books—the First Folio of 1623 in particular—that have been responsible for transforming Shakespeare himself from a proficient playwright in his own day to the world’s most famous author in our own.

Drawing on the Boston Public Library’s Barton Collection of Shakespeariana, the exhibit presented over two dozen items, including folios (large, expensive editions of the collected works), quartos (medium-sized, relatively inexpensive editions of single plays), and duodecimos (small, elegant editions of Shakespeare’s poems) from the 17th century, as well as a variety of Shakespeare-related books and manuscripts from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. 

Our understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare is, to a surprising extent, dependent and contingent upon the books in which his works have been published, edited, altered, annotated, translated, and illustrated over the centuries. The earliest quarto editions of King Lear (1608) and Hamlet (1603 and 1604) for example, differ significantly from the First Folio’s posthumously published versions of those same plays. Since the 18th century, editors of Shakespeare’s books have insisted on “correcting” and “amending” many passages from the First Folio based on comparison with the earlier quarto editions as well as their own sense of what Shakespeare had intended to write. Likewise, stage directors have frequently abridged Shakespeare’s plays—eliminating characters and changing the titles in the process!—in order to accommodate what the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet calls “the two hours’ traffic of our stage.”  Even our impressions of Shakespeare’s personal appearance owe a great deal to books. The most famous portrait of Shakespeare, the Droeshout portrait, is an original engraving commissioned for the opening page of the First Folio of 1623. Subsequent editions of Shakespeare’s collected works sometimes substituted a different image of the author. Alexander Pope’s 1725 edition, for example, uses a portrait of King James I, with Shakespeare’s name under it, in an attempt to make the author appear more aristocratic and, thus, more like the prospective buyers for Pope’s six-volume edition.

In addition to the First Folio of 1623, which has been called the most important book in the history of English literature, the “All the World’s a Page” exhibit also featured some of the earliest, quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays: books published during his lifetime, during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James.  Also on display will be rare and gorgeously illustrated editions of Shakespeare (from the 18th and 19th centuries) as well as some books Shakespeare would have had in his own library, including the 1560 Geneva Bible and Holinshed’s Chronicles (the source for Shakespeare’s history plays).  Finally, there is the 1620 English translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote published by Edward Blount, who was also one of the publishers—just three years later—of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

Alas, Shakespeare’s Cardenio, a comedy that took its title from a character in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, has been completely lost.  The play had its debut performance by the King’s Men in 1613 but the text for this Shakespearean adaptation of Cervantes novel has been missing for nearly four centuries.  And the reason is simple: Cardenio is not among the 36 plays included in the First Folio.  Fortunately, for us, the editors did include eighteen other plays that had never before been in print.  Otherwise, we might never have heard of The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, or The Tempest, to name only a few. 

In truth, without the First Folio, many of us might never have heard of Shakespeare at all. 

“All the World’s a Page: 400 Years of Shakespeare in Print” was the culmination of a graduate course in Shakespeare taught by faculty and taken by students from the Department of English, University of Massachusetts Boston. The class was held in the Boston Public Library’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Room.

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