Throughout the last four centuries, publishers, editors and artists have created a vast range of textual interpretations of William Shakespeare’s works—from original printings and family-friendly versions to Romeo and Juliet translated into social media posts, complete with emojis. To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library has created an exhibition called “Shakespeare by the Book” that includes these items and more. While we tend to think of books as static, permanent things, this exhibition on the history of editing and publishing reveals otherwise.
Special Collections Library curator Molly Schwartzburg and her students have designed the exhibition to guide the viewer through three stages (or acts) in Shakespearean publishing: the first printings in the 17th century, the second wave of printings in the 18th century and the rising role of editing, and the best of the extreme transformations of Shakespeare from UVA’s Special Collections.
The oldest item in the collection is the second quarto of King Lear, printed in 1619 and named for the sheets of paper folded into quarters. After the quartos came the first folio. A larger book with the sheets folded only once, it was compiled by publishers and members of Shakespeare’s acting company and printed posthumously in 1623. Before the early part of that century it was unusual to treat contemporary plays as literature. A fragment of one first folio is on display in the collection.
The fact that it’s a fragment is what interests Schwartzburg most. She explains that when later folios were published, the first folio was devalued.
“It’s important to recognize that we’ve constructed this veneration [of the early printings of Shakespeare] for legitimate reasons,” says Schwartzburg. “But it hasn’t always been the case.”
There are only 235 intact known first folios in the world today. For the month of October, the exhibit will house a complete first folio edition on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library.
As paper was expensive and the folios were rife with errors, during the second wave of printings in the 18th century, editing began to be recognized as a professional role in the printing process. A 1709 edition on display is novel for printing the name of its editor and for providing a dramatis personae (list of characters), illustrations and a biography of Shakespeare.
One panel is devoted to “The Art of the Editorial Insult” as editors criticized one another within the text of new editions. “This was the start of a vibrant culture of editorial debate over who Shakespeare was, and what his writings should be, that gives us the canonical figure we know today,” Schwartzburg says.
Another exhibit details UVA’s unique role in the scholarship on the first folio. Before 1954, there were no methods of quickly comparing texts other than looking back and forth between them (the Wimbledon method). But in 1941, UVA professor Fredson Bowers and his graduate student Charlton Hinman joined the U.S. military and served in the same cryptology unit. There, Hinman got the idea for a comparison device to study two editions at once.
The Hinman collator, as it is now known, uses a complex system of mirrors to collate two images, allowing the brain to recognize discrepancies between the two. (A simpler version is on display so that viewers can see for themselves.) Hinman reviewed 55 different versions of the first folio and chose the best version of every page. His work revealed how textual differences came to be and who had printed them.
“It’s like forensic bibliography—reconstructing how the book was put together to make rational decisions about which is the best version,” Schwartzburg says.
Another panel uses a real-life example of bibliographical research from Schwartzburg and her team to explain how it works. They chose from their collection an edition of The Merchant of Venice with an unknown history, printed by H. Whitworth. Through their research, the team learned that the H. stood for Hannah. Although women were involved with printing since its earliest days, many have been ignored by history.
The final section of the exhibition grew out of the strengths of UVA’s collection: artists’ books, fine press editions and miniature books. The miniature collection, which is the second-largest in the country, includes some from the 19th century when publishers began printing popular pocket-size editions of Shakespeare for a wide audience. With the 20th century came the commodification of the Bard as certain miniature editions were printed solely to promote other products, such as the 1932 edition that was free with a newspaper subscription and another edition stamped with the name of a chocolate company.
A children’s section in the exhibition displays an 1807 edition by Henrietta Bowdler, whose surname is the root of the term “bowdlerize,” with censored adult material and references to Catholicism. Among the artists’ contributions is a miniature edition of Hamlet with a skull-shaped case, and the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet translated into text messages and attached to a case made out of a cell phone. Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, it is clear that his work remains universal and relevant, even as it is reimagined.