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Long read: Shakespeare’s First Folio: A Moving Monument


Written by
Michael Durrant, Institute of English Studies

Written by Michael Durrant, Institute of English Studies

Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623): the Sterling Library Copy.[1]

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When William Shakespeare’s friends and fellow-actors, John Heminges (bap. 1556-1630) and Henry Condell (bap. 1576-1627), arranged for the publication in folio of a collection of his works, they gathered together thirty-six plays, around half of which had not previously been published in the cheaper quarto format. The early modern dramatist’s move into the expensive folio format was not unprecedented, but for Shakespeare, it did mark a very important shift in his posthumous status: the Folio resembled, and was designed to resemble, not the ephemeral works of popular culture—single-sided ballads, say, or quarto playbooks—but rather a ‘monumental book’ of high culture, up to and including the King James Version of 1611.[2] 

In one of the many prefatory addresses that accompany the First Folio, Shakespeare’s contemporary and fellow playwright, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), reflects on the First Folio’s monumentality, as well as its status as, to quote Emma Smith, ‘Shakespeare’s bibliographic embodiment’.[3] As part of these reflections, Jonson conjures the idea of the book as a grand funerary monument, which might ultimately function as a vehicle for the ‘Bard’ to stage his own Christ-life resurrection:

     Soule of the Age!
The applause! delight! the wonder of our Stage!
My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lye
A little further, to make thee a room:
Thou art a Monument, without a tomb,
And art alive still, while thy Book doth live

And we have wits to read, and praise to give.

Ben Jonson, ‘To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare’, First Folio (1623)

For Jonson, the dead Shakespeare and the First Folio, the ‘Book’ and ‘Bard’, had become coterminous: one wonderous monument gave life to the other in a mutual reanimating exchange, although crucially Jonson asserts that it’s the First Folio’s readers who help to enact this miraculous revival. As long as we ‘read’ the plays that make up the First Folio, as long as we continue to serve as its witnesses by moving through (and being moved by) its printed pages, Jonson promises that the dead Shakespeare—that ‘Soule of the Age’—remains ‘alive still’. 

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Ben Jonson’s eulogy, ‘To the memory of my beloued, the AVTHOR Mr. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’. 

The whole notion of the book as a kind of architectural structure akin to a monument was not a new one, and indeed the prospect of a monument suddenly coming to life does have a precedent in Shakespeare’s own writings, notably his late romance, The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610-1611), which was first published as part of the First Folio in 1623. 

The Winter’s Tale begins in the coldly patriarchal court of Leontes, King of Sicily, who wrongly accuses his pregnant wife, Hermione, of having had an affair with his childhood friend, Polixenes. Driven by the mad logic of his own toxic masculinity, Leontes casts Hermione into prison; before long Hermione will be dead, but not before Leontes has their new-born baby, Perdita, abandoned on the (entirely fictional) coast of Bohemia. So far, so tragic, but then The Winter’s Tale really is a play of two halves. Soon enough, the action shifts from Sicily to Bohemia; it’s some sixteen-years later, and it turns out that baby Perdita survived her abandonment, and she’s now living amongst shepherds and shepherdesses in an alternative world of music and dancing and feasting and youthful love. 

Tragedy morphs into comedy, or at least something like it: in the pastoral world of Bohemia, the tragically flawed Leontes, having recognised the error of his ways, gets a second chance: first by reconciling with his lost daughter, Perdita, but then also, in conclusion, by reconnecting with his dead wife, Hermione. Indeed, alongside its infamous ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ stage direction, The Winter’s Tale is best remembered for its remarkable twist ending, in which a statue of the persecuted Hermione, at first presented by her friend and confidant, Paulina, as an inanimate funerary monument, is suddenly brought to life, stepping down from its plinth to stage a miraculous reunion between a wronged mother, a distraught husband, and a lost child:

Paulina, Leontes, and Hermione [like a statue]

Paulina:              If you can behold it,

I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend,

And take you by the hand. But then you’ll think—

Which I protest against—I am assisted 

By wicked powers.

Leontes:             What you can make her do,

I am content to look on; what to speak,

I am content to hear; for ’tis as easy

To make her speak as move.

Paulina:              It is required

You do awake your faith. Then all stand still. 

On! Those that think it is unlawful business

I am about, let them depart. 

Leontes:             Proceed.

Paulina [To Hermione]: 


’Tis time. descend. Be stone no more. Approach. 

Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come, 

I’ll fill your grave up. Stir. Nay, come away. 

Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him

Dear life redeems you. [to Leontes] You perceive she stirs. 

Start not. Her actions shall be holy as 

You hear my spell is lawful. Do not shun her

Until you see her die again, for then

You kill her double. Nay, present your hand. 

When she was young, you wooed her; now, in age

Is she become the suitor?

Leontes:             Oh, she’s warm!

If this be magic, let it be an art

Lawful as eating.


Paulina:                           That she is living, 

Were it but told you, should be hooted at

Like an old tale. But it appears she lives…              

The Winter’s Tale (1623), 5.3.87-117. 

Whether by magic or some other surreptitious plot concocted by Paulina, the statue of the dead Hermione is resurrected: it moves, and we, like the awestruck on-stage characters, are asked to ‘awake’ our own ‘faith’ in the power of art to move us, to change us, and to change the world, in turn. 

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Hermione’s statue comes to life in the concluding act of The Winter’s Tale.

There are other women in the First Folio who invoke the monument in order to move men—and their on-stage and off-stage audiences—to think differently about the world, and about female experience in particular. Take, for instance, the following exchange from Shakespeare’s festive comedy, Twelfth Night, or What you Will (c. 1601-1602), in which the shipwrecked Viola, who’s dressed as her male alter ego, the eunuch Cesario, has an illuminating discussion about gender difference with Duke Orsino, a man who, like any good Elizabethan sonneteer, is in love with the idea of love:

Orsino and Viola [as Cesario]


Orsino:               There is no woman’s sides

Can bide the beating of so strong a passion

As love doth give my heart. No woman’s heart

So big, to hold so much. They lack retention. 

Alas, their love may be called appetite, 

No motion of the liver, but the palate, 

That suffer surfeit, cloyment, and revolt. 

But mine is all as hungry as the sea

And can digest as much. Make no compare

Between that love a woman can bear me

And that I owe Olivia. 

Viola:                  Ay, but I know—

Orsino: What dost thou know?

Viola:                  Too well what love women to men may owe. 

In faith, they are as true of heart as we. 

My father had a daughter loved a man

As it might be perhaps, were I a woman, 

I should your lordship. 

Orsino: And what’s her history?

Viola:                  A blank, my lord. She never told her love

But let concealment, like a worm i’th’ bud, 

Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought,

And, with a green and yellow melancholy, 

She sat like Patience on a monument, 

Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

We men may say more, swear more, but indeed

Our shows are more than will. For still we prove 

Much in our vows, but little in our love. 

Orsino: But died thy sister of her love, my boy?

Viola:                  I am all the daughters of my father’s house, 

And all the brothers too, and yet I know not.     


Twelfth Night, or What you Will (1623), 2.4.90-118. 

Expressing early modern gender stereotypes that associated women with disorderly forms of desire and men with steadfastness, Orsino complains that woman lack the psychological and physiological fortitude required to deal with unrequited love. He’s a hypocrite, of course: right from the start, Shakespeare associates Orsino with a self-centred, unstable, and emotionally immature sort of self-love. To emphasise the point, and to highlight the constructedness of Orsino’s lazy conceits about women’s inconstancy, Shakespeare has Viola/Cesario respond by personifying Patience as a woman on a monument. It’s a beautifully evocative moment, and one that helps to brings to life an alternative, destabilising vision, in which women are revealed not to be the weak and irrational creatures of Orsino’s imagination; rather, they embody a radical, statue-like fortitude that men can only dream of. 

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Viola’s ‘Patience’ speech in Twelfth Night.

Viola’s ‘Patience’ speech is rendered all the more powerful, and all the more poignant, by the fact that she only gets to express this oppositional viewpoint whilst disguised as a man. Dressed as a man, Viola imagines and articulates a tragic end to a woman’s story of unrequited love; as a woman, however, another tragic fate might await, which is that of the historical ‘blank’. 

Whether because they have been ignored or suppressed, early modern women’s histories—and the histories of other historically marginalised groups—have often been rendered as blanks in the stories we tell about the past. Our current focus on Shakespeare, and on the publication of his monumental First Folio, might only seem to exacerbate the problem, in that it continues to centre the a dead white man and the broadly conservative status quo of the English literary canon; however, if Shakespeare can teach us anything, it’s that blanks have creative affordances. 

In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 77, for example, the speaker invites his beloved to take up his book and fill in its ‘blanks’—its ‘vacant leaves’—with his ‘mind’s imprint’:

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste:                                                
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show,
Of mouthèd graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.                                                 
Look what thy memory cannot contain
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.                                                       
   These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
    Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.

Sonnet 77 (1609)

Here, the sorts of blank (or white) spaces we might find in, say, a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609), or in the First Folio, are represented as sites of inducement, as spaces of creative potential and readerly participation.[1]To read is to write ourselves into the blank spaces we find between and around printed text, and to write is to therefore introduce some aspect of ourselves into our books in a collaborative process that ultimately enriches them. 

If to read is to write, it’s also to rewrite. Shakespeare is ‘alive still’, to quote Jonson again, not because his plays and poems have fixed or monolithic meanings and messages. For sure, these are artifacts of an early modern past and they should be interpreted as such, but it’s also true that Shakespeare’s plays and poems have been written and rewritten across their performance and publication histories. The Shakespearean texts that make up the ‘Monument’ of the First Folio, and those that don’t, are, in this way, more like the book represented in Sonnet 77, in that they are riddled with all sorts of creative blank spaces into which successive generations have imprinted historically-specific concerns and anxieties.  

And so to a Lord Chancellor of England and a riot in multi-cultural London. Surviving only in manuscript, the collaboratively-authored, politically inflammatory biographical play, Sir Thomas More (c. 1591-1593), never made it into the First Folio. This absence is perhaps because Shakespeare’s involvement in its authorship was limited to at least the following speech, in which the historical figure, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), attempts to quell a public disturbance between Londoners and their migrant neighbours:[2]

Thomas More:  You’ll put down strangers, 
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses 
And lead the majesty of law in lyam 
To slip him like a hound. Alas, alas! Say now the 

As he is clement if th’offender mourn, 
Should so much come too short of your great trespass 
As but to banish you: whither would you go? 

What country, by the nature of your error, 
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or 

To any German province, Spain or Portugal, 
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England: 
Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be 

To find a nation of such barbarous temper 
That breaking out in hideous violence, 
Would not afford you an abode on earth, 
Whet their detested knives against your throats, 
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God 
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements 
Were not all appropriate to your comforts 
But chartered unto them? What would you think 
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case 
And this your mountainish inhumanity.                                                          

Sir Thomas More (c. 1591-93), Scene 6, 135-156.

In our own world of deadly Channel crossings, Rwandan flights, and of the Bibby Stockholm, More’s speech—in which he asks Londoners to imagine themselves in the shoes of migrants who leave their homes in search of a better life—offers a powerfully resonant defence of ‘the strangers’ case’.   

Shakespeare was drafted in to write this ‘strangers’ speech in order to get Sir Thomas More past the Elizabethan censors and into print; otherwise, that play is now considered to have been written (and revised) by at least four other contributing playwrights. It’s a scenario that hints at the highly collaborative theatrical market in which Shakespeare operated during his lifetime, and it cues us to conceptualise the texts that have survived him less as the remnants of individual genius than as ‘a kind of ensemble work’.[1]

Whilst ‘Shakespeare’s First Folio aims firmly to fix its plays within a textual monument to the dramatist’s memory’, in reality it was always a highly collaborative venture, serving as a memorial not only to the ‘Bard’, but to a large syndicate of printer-publishers and booksellers, who laboured to move their consumers to buy the First Folio and to thereby pass copies of Shakespeare’s ‘Monument’ down to us.[2] Shakespeare’s ‘Monument’ was, after all, a luxury commodity, and one that could only come to life through the purchasing powers of consumers, as Shakespeare’s editors, Heminges and Condell, knew only too well.

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In their opening address ‘To the great Variety of Readers’, Heminges and Condell implore the reading public to ‘Buy’ the book and to read it ‘againe and againe’: 

From the most able, to him that can but spell: There you are number’d. We had rather you were weigh[e]d. Especially, when the fate of all Bookes depends upon your capacities: and not on your heads alone, but of your purses. Well! It is now publique, & you will stand for your privileges wee know: to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first. That doth best commend a Booke, the Stationer saies. Then, how odde soever your braines be, or your wisdomes, make your licence the same, and spare not. Judge your sixe-pen’orth, your shillings worth, your five shillings worth at a time, or higher, so you rise to the just rates, and welcome. But, what ever you do, Buy.

John Heminge and Henry Condell, ‘To the Great Variety of Readers’, First Folio (1623)

It’s a fascinating moment, not only because it help to plug the First Folio back into the commercial contexts from which it first emerged, but also because it functions as a kind of invitation or ‘licence’, in which readers are asked to determine the future shapes of Shakespeare’s ‘Monument’. Since 1623 and over the last 400 years, collaborating book-trade agents, librarians, archivists, actors, directors, artists, and a ‘great Variety of Readers’, have done just that.

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Heminges and Condell’s address ‘To the great Variety of Readers’. 

Of course, that rich history of collaboration, of reworking and participation in the production and handling of Shakespeare’s ‘Monument’, has continued this year at the School of Advanced Study and at Senate House Library, where the First Folio’s birthday has been celebrated with a major new exhibition, with a digitisation project, and with special events featuring actors, contemporary poets, and academics.[1] These activities and celebrations have sought to bring that old book, like Hermione’s statue, to life, and in this post we have tried to continue some of that work, suggesting that Shakespeare’s ‘Monument’ is less a fixed,  monolithic, or inanimate thing than it is a constantly moving picture, which matters most when we find the space to make ourselves a part of it. 

This post was first delivered as part of Senate House Library’s ‘Shakespeare’s First Folio: Bringing the Book Alive’ event on 22/02/2024. Special thanks to Dr Andrew Nash, who helped to edit this piece in readiness for performance, and a special thanks to our special guests that evening, who brought the event to life, including Samantha Bond, David Horovitch, Will Merrick, Joanna David, Daljit Nagra, and Institute of English Studies Research Fellow, Dr Yewande Okuleye. 


1 All other images from the First Folio are taken from this Sterling Library copy. The Sterling Library First Folio has been fully digitised and it is available to view here:   

2 David Scott Kastan, Shakespeare and the Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 50.  

3 Emma Smith, Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 1. 

4 On early modern attitudes to, and literary reflections on, blank spaces in printed books, see Laurie Maguire, The Rhetoric of the Page (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).   


6 Ben Higgins, Shakespeare’s Syndicate: The First Folio, its Publishers, and the Early Modern Book Trade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), p. 31. 

7 Amy Lidster, ‘“Not on his Picture, but his Booke”: Shakespeare’s First Folio and Practices of Collection’, Shakespeare (2023): pp. 1-26 (p. 11).