Measuring Hamlet and the golden section

It is an understatement to say that the layout of most books doesn’t show much daring, and that academic publications are among the most dull in this respect. But solid content and tasteful form do not necessarily exclude each other, as is convincingly demonstrated by the Canadian book designer Robert Bringhurst. Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is not only a poetical account of his subject, it is a beautiful object that reflects the importance of its content.

In his chapter 8, “Shaping the Page,” Bringhurst explains the concept of the golden section: “The golden section is a symmetrical relation built from asymmetrical parts. Two numbers, shapes or elements embody the golden section when the smaller is to the larger as the larger is to the sum.”1 In order not to chase you away with Bringhurst’s subsequent algebraic elaborations, you can go by the following rule of thumb. Pages are shaped according to the golden section when the height is 1.61803 times taller than the width. In other words, if a page is 162 millimeters tall and 100 millimeters wide, then it almost perfectly reflects the golden section, a shape that is especially pleasing to the eye and soothing for the mind. 

I have been measuring the type area of fol. 265r in almost all First Folios in the Folger collections. This is the page on which Hamlet asks the well-known question, “To be, or not to be,” but the question I am asking here is: what are the dimensions of the type area on this page? Before I give you the answer, I should say that I measured all typeset space, from the upper single-ruled line until the bottom single-ruled line for the height, and between the two ruled lines in the middle of the page for the width. The average height for the type area in 68 First Folios is 290.25 mm, and the average width is 177.19 mm, which results in a ratio of 0.62 (width/height)—the golden section (!).2 Can there be more beauty?

Hamlet's text block (fol. 265r)

Hamlet’s text block (fol. 265r)

The reason I was measuring type areas is that I wanted to know what the variation of the type area would be. Because every handmade sheet is unique—dampened and inked differently during the printing process and then dried and preserved under different circumstances—leaves may shrink more or less in different copies. A comparison of the dimension of the type area on the same page in a series of First Folios gives us a snapshot of that variation. And that variation turns out to be very little:

The height and width of the type area in 68 First Folios

The height and width of the type area in 68 First Folios

The shortest type area is 288 mm (seen in copies 2, 56, and 76) and the tallest is 292 mm (copies 47 and 79);   the narrowest type area is 175 mm (copy 29) and the widest is 179 mm (copy 33).3 Translated into percentages, this means that in different copies of the First Folio, the height of the type area on this page may differ about 1.3% and the width about 2.3%.

Most books in libraries are bound and sometimes rebound (repeatedly), with the book blocks being trimmed or cropped, sometimes several times. As a result, the dimensions of the book block are susceptible to a much greater variation than the type area. This becomes evident when you compare the height and width of 71 First Folios in the Folger collections:

The height and width of the book block in 71 First Folios

The height and width of the book block in 71 First Folios

Book binders clearly did not worry that much about the golden section as master printers and the compositors did, which becomes clear from graph 3. The ratio of the width over height varies greatly between 0.603 and 0.664. Only copies 69 and 77 have a book block with dimensions close to the “perfect proportions,” 0.616 and 0.621 respectively.

Ratio of width over height (in mm) of the book block in 71 First Folios

Ratio of width over height (in mm) of the book block in 71 First Folios

Type areas form a more steady basis to map the proportions of books. I deliberately used the word “snapshot” when referring to the 1623 Shakespeare Folio and the dimensions of the Hamlet page in it. As I demonstrated in surveys of Flemish folio Bibles printed in the period 1526–1714, and of quarto theater programs published in the period 1601–1773, over time the dimensions of books change considerably, transforming them from rather square books into taller volumes.4 These changes greatly impact the physical appearance of books, but they remain often unseen because they happen so slowly. Perhaps the perfect dimensions for a perfect First Folio is just a matter of perfect timing?

  1. Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style, Version 3.0 (Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, 2004) p. 155. []
  2. I took all measurements with a stainless steel, Hol brand ruler, which is divided in ½ mm rules. I rounded up all measures up to a full millimeter, so that a 269.5 mm was thus entered as 270 mm. []
  3. For the statisticians amongst our readers, the standard deviation is less than 1 mm for either height or width, or, more exactly, 0.81 for the height and 0.67 for the width. []
  4. Goran Proot, “Designing the Word of God. Layout and Typography of Flemish 16th-Century Folio Bibles Published in the Vernacular,” in De Gulden Passer 90 (2012), 143–179, esp. 154–155; Goran Proot, “The Evolving Typographical Identity of Theatre Programmes Produced for the Flemish Jesuits in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” in W. Kelly (ed.), The Book in the Low Countries [forthcoming]. []

Author: Goran Proot

GORAN PROOT is Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Rare Books at the Folger Shakespeare Library. He is currently surveying layout and typography in early modern books.

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