Although many people talk about Shakespeare’s First Folio, we often forget another, perhaps equally important, First Folio that arrived slightly earlier, in 1616. While most of the attention this year has been on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, this other 400th anniversary is also worthy of recognition.
In the fall of 1616, The workes of Beniamin Ionson was published in a large, imposing folio volume. Running nearly 575 leaves, Ben Jonson’s Workes is a testament its author’s skills, popularity, and determination to have his writings published together in one volume. To understand why Jonson’s Folio is so important, we must step back and remember a couple of critical things about printing in early 17th-century London.
First, printing required paper, and paper was generally the most expensive part of any printing venture. The larger the format of the final work, the more paper was usually needed. This meant a larger initial outlay, and therefore required more of a surety that the book would sell well. Because of this, the folio format was usually reserved for religious and historical texts and other weighty matters: all subjects on which a printer and publisher could be relatively well-assured of good sales. Plays and poetry, on the other hand, were generally only printed in smaller formats, such as the quarto or octavo.
Ben Jonson, a poet and playwright who knew Shakespeare and enjoyed some of the same patronage and fame, decided to change that. This brings us to a second point: the person who registered the rights to print a work with the Stationers’ Company generally had a great deal of control over the printing process, both in terms of when and how it was printed, and in how it looked. Jonson himself registered his Workes in January of 1616. This was rare–while it wasn’t unheard of for an author to register his own work, it was certainly unusual for a literary author and playwright like Jonson to do so. While in the end, Jonson’s printer William Stansby had a great deal to do with the ultimate look of the folio,1 registering the work himself was still a bold move by Jonson.
People who purchased literary volumes must have agreed, as the publication of a playwright’s body of work in a single volume became at least a potential option for other writers: Heminge(s)2 and Condell followed seven years later, with Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies, and in 1647 another posthumous folio, the Comedies and tragedies written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Gentlemen was published.
Jonson changed the possibilities of play publication with one audacious volume.
The Folger holds eleven copies of Jonson’s First Folio in varying degrees of completeness. They range from complete/nearly complete copies to single leaves. One (Copy 11) is even a “made-up” copy—that is, a copy that was assembled from parts of two or more different copies. In this case, gathering 3L is noticeably smaller than the surrounding leaves. This gathering includes portions of the plays The Alchemist and Catiline.
Copy 11 is also special as it is a rare “large paper” copy of the folio (measuring 34cm tall, rather than the 25-30cm tall that most of the rest of our copies are). This means that it was intentionally printed on larger paper than normal, even for a folio, but with the text block remaining the same size as in those printed on more average paper size. Large-paper copies were printed in even smaller, more limited runs than folios, which is another interesting part of how this book came to be. When Bernard Quaritch offered this book for sale in a 1910 catalogue, the cataloger noted “[u]nlike the first folio Shakespeare [sic], this first edition of Jonson’s works is a handsome example of typography, especially on large paper.” So much for Will’s folio!
When Henry Folger purchased copy 3 in 1917, the book dealer was very excited by the contemporary manuscript notes found on its back flyleaves.
Although closely written and somewhat difficult to make out, the dealer ascertained that the lines were quotes from several of the works in the copy, with corresponding page numbers. However, the quoted portions in manuscript hand varied consistently from the version in the printed text.
The dealer believed that this meant the writer might have been quoting from a manuscript copy of the folio. Since Jonson’s First Folio is a complicated text bibliographically,3 appearing in multiple states within the same edition, this assertion requires more research. However, we can safely say that it shows a contemporary reader’s close interest and study of Jonson’s texts, and the variations that occurred over the life of the text as new editions came into being. Whether this writer was editing the copy for the press, writing from a manuscript copy, or simply studying Jonson’s works remains to be seen.
Copy 7 holds a treat within its pages of Every Man Out of his Humour: this copy has been extensively marked up as if for performance.
A marked up copy of a play like this is often referred to as a promptbook, since it is (or resembles) the copy that a theater company’s prompter (what we would now refer to as the stage manager) would create and use for the performances. They would record cuts to the text, entrances and exits for different characters, and sometimes even rewrite lines.
While there is no way to tell what performance (or, indeed, if there was a particular performance) these markups were made for, there do seem to be two different hands in it (and two different inks).
For those wishing to see more of Jonson’s first folio , you will be glad to know that copy 2 has been digitized cover-to-cover. It also has a wonderful early owner’s mark .
All of our copies of Ben Jonson’s Workes have something interesting about them, whether it is the particular state of each play that was included, provenance, or ownership marks.
In this year where (around here, at least) it has been All Shakespeare, All The Time, take a moment to remember the other First Folio. After all, if Jonson (and his ego) had not defied convention and published it in 1616, Shakespeare’s might never have come about at all.
Edited 7/2019, revision of thought regarding the ms hands in copy 7.
- see David Gants, “The 1616 Folio (F1): Textual Essay” in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson Online
- Opinion is divided as to the proper spelling of his name. Some contemporary sources, like the aforementioned Shakespeare First Folio, do not include the terminal S; however, several major modern sources, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography spell it Heminges.
- See again, Gants, “The 1616 Folio (F1): Textual Essay”