By David G. Anderson

Imagine if a collection of notoriously sloshed seventeenth-century thespians with their coterie of zany friends and family were to conjure up a scheme that would change the course of, not just literature, but history itself. These inebriated players were known as the King’s Men and had trod the boards with their heralded late friend and playwright, William Shakespeare. Holding nightly court, post-show, in the Globe Tap House, they lament and are aggrieved by the piracy and bastardization of one of the era’s greatest wordsmiths. “To be or not to be… / Aye there’s the point” (Lauren Gunderson, Dramatists Play Service, Inc., The Book of Will, 1.1.1–2). The world hadn’t yet invented artistic property, intellectual, or copyright attorneys. The first copyright law didn’t exist until the Statute of Anne in 1709. These friends were also acutely aware that Shakespeare had been woefully derelict in fostering any legacy by assembling any reliable manuscripts.

In the early 1620s, after Richard Burbage’s death, Henry Condell and John Heminges were not only the last of the King’s Men, but also the residual two of what you might call a literary tontine. They decided to undertake the Everest-task of gathering and publishing in a single volume all of Shakespeare’s plays. “Just to have them all together, so we know they’re safe” (Gunderson, 1.5.125–26), pipes Condell in Lauren Gunderson’s excellent play, The Book of Will. Gunderson’s brilliant pen is on full display as she carefully weaves lackluster historical facts, imagination with anachronistic flashes, and reflective epiphanies unveiling earnest human emotion into a dramady of—can we with modest hyperbolizing say—“Shakespearean” proportions.

Imagine Gunderson, the most produced living playwright of the last few years, writing a play that not only captures Shakespeare’s artistic acumen, but also the ephemeral/transformative capacity of theatre itself. Her shrewd allusions to many “inside” references to passages from his plays add an additional portion of theatrical crème de la crème.

Heminges, Condell, and Burbage were more than artistic colleagues. As Paul Collins points out, “When William Shakespeare died in 1616, his will included a proviso directing ‘to my fellows John Hemings, Richard Burbage, and Henry Condell, 26s. 8d. a piece to buy them rings,’” (The Book of William, Bloomsbury USA, p.14). Globe documents revealed all three being shareholders from the onset of the theatre. The last decade Heminges’s name appears first, designating him the largest shareholder and principal.

It is vitally important to note that playwrights through the seventeenth centuries did not own their work. The scripts were owned by the company of players that performed the plays. “Plays neither interested nor rewarded publishers: a play was an event, and the money was in the staging, in the receipts at the door. On a good night, the Globe Theatre could handle an audience of three thousand, paying anywhere from a penny to a sixpence, and would have taken in far more than the paltry two pounds the King’s Men stood to earn from permanently selling a play manuscript to a publisher. . . . His company didn’t fuss much over the preservation or publication of his plays for the simple reason that it was scarcely worth their time” (Collins, p.17–18).

Imagine the obstacles facing our protagonists: first, money; secondly, the gathering of plays that were in quarto editions, some legally owned by other parties; thirdly, the patching together of plays like Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear through prompt books, stage directions, and fading memories, along with other unsanctioned counterfeits from imprecise sycophantic plagiarists. Lastly, they needed a printer, one with massive capability.

Imagine the most improbable real estate for printers, book hawkers, and pubs. All three institutions lined the courtyard, “around St. Paul’s making it the absolute center of the British book trade. This was by design, as having printers close at hand made it easy for the crown to control the country’s literature and thus . . . its thinking—a vital power in a dangerously heretical era of vying Catholic and Protestant ideas. All printers had to clear their works with a government censor. A 1596 decree by Queen Elizabeth also limited the operation of printing presses to London” (Collins, p.10). With so much time-consuming censorship, the British book industry was sorely curtailed and a severely oppressed industry.

Now imagine the most improbable printer/publisher for the First Folio.

William Jaggard was somewhat unique in that he had perspective from both sides of the book industry, selling and printing. He began hawking books in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1580. Having his thumb on the pulse of British book sales primed him for opening his own print shop in 1595. “Jaggard scored a hit with his very first title: The Booke of Secrets of Albertus Magnus. It was a book of occult alchemy” (Collins, p.10). Sounds perfect for a wizard like Harry Potter doesn’t it? Circumventing the censors, the shrewd Jaggard employed the caveat, “For Entertainment Purposes Only: ‘Use this booke for thy recreation (as thou art wont to use the book of Fortune) for there is assuredly nothing herein promised but to further thy delight”’ (Collins, p. 10).

Greed must have enticed and motivated Jaggard when soon after he discovered a manuscript, or at minimum a single orphan sheet, “bearing two unpublished sonnets by a popular local playwright. The first sonnet was a perfectly serviceable example of the genre, but the second was another matter altogether: When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her though I knows she lies. . . . The sonnets were written for a patron several years earlier, when [Shakespeare’s] burgeoning career was on hiatus due to a three-season closure of London theaters by bubonic plague. These sonnets had never been meant for publication and had, indeed, never been registered or sold to any printer. . . . By interspersing the two genuine sonnets with three more lyrics lifted from another newly pirated play by the same playwright. . . . and in turn, mixed in with fifteen other poems, stripped of attribution, by other poets who sounded rather similar in style . . . clap some fancy leather covers on, and you have, just barely, a ‘book’ . . . The Passionate Pilgrime: By W. Shakespeare,” (Collins, p.11-12). Jaggard printed and reprinted this book several times. Each time the sound of clinking coins in the coffers reverberating in his ears. The dodgy gamble paid off. This and a multitude of other books made him the “Barnes and Noble” of his era.

Shakespeare, either not having enough time or money to deal with the grubby-handed rip-off, let it be. But, “William Jaggard bears the curious distinction…[as]…the only man in the world that we know Shakespeare disliked,” (Collins, p.13). So, it must have been with pinched noses that Heminges and Condell crossed Jaggard’s sleazy threshold, where not surprisingly, they found an enterprising printing operation. Noteworthy—Jaggard died three weeks before the printing was complete—poetic justice?

At that time there was no “First Folio,” it was simply, Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies, printed in folio. Condell and Heminges inserted into Shakespeare’s scripts actus and scaena, acts and scenes, that resembled chapters where a reader might reasonably pause. They, “transmuted handwritten actor’s sheaves into typeset literature. They transformed a couple of hours of dialogue at the Globe Theatre into something that could be read (studied) for days or even weeks,” (Collins, p.28).

A First Folio was recently auctioned at Sotheby’s in London for $5.2 million, making it worth fifty-five times its weight in gold. Peter Selley, the English-Literature expert/auctioneer at Sotheby’s flatly stated, “It’s the most important work in English literature, and indeed, the most important secular work of all time,” (Collins, p.8).

 The Book of Will might appear at first to be frothy entertainment, but the reward is a spectacular showing of what the works of Shakespeare meant to those that knew him best. Their labors exemplified extreme “Will” power and could easily be celebrated as the most decisive cultural undertaking in history. Their remarkable stage accomplishments pale in comparison.

What to think of a world where, “Mark Antony would neither praise nor bury, for we would have no Julius Caesar, and as Twelfth Night would ever arrive, none would be born to greatness, nor achieve it, nor have it thrust upon them. Macbeth, the Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Comedy of Errors would be mere stage words—and all the world not be a stage,” (Collins, p.32). All those “words, words, words” unprinted, it’s unimaginable!