“This iconic, extraordinary, and quite scrappy book.”

This is how Tiffany Stern, a noted Shakespeare scholar at the University of Birmingham, describes the First Folio in the new documentary that borrows its title from one of her own books: Making Shakespeare. Produced in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio, this film, extraordinary in its own right, takes us through the improbable journey from the moment a couple of Shakespeare’s actor colleagues decided, in the wake of his death in 1616, that they had to do something to preserve his work for future generations, to the present moment when new generations are still discovering his work and finding relevance in it four centuries later. 

The First Folio - i.e. Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies Published according to the True Originall Copies - was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death. This two-hour documentary tells the story of its creation and its lasting impact. We learn that the characterization of “scrappy” is apt on a number of levels, describing not only the prodigious number of textual errors throughout the book on every page, but also the dogged determination it took to create the book despite daunting challenges. We spend a few minutes early in the film in the modern but scrupulously authentic reconstruction of the Globe Theater (the one that Shakespeare worked in) on the south bank of the Thames, but we don’t dwell there; we soon find ourselves on the trail, piecing together the details of how the book came to life: chatting with a rare book dealer and a calligrapher, looking through the registers at Stationer’s Hall which have remained in place since Shakespeare’s day, and visiting a couple of typesetters plying their exacting trade in a workshop at Oxford’s Bodleian Library (the first institution to purchase a copy of the First Folio, which received their copy in early 1625). All these locations and bits of information add up to a colorful narrative of the First Folio’s history.

In a truly extraordinary scene, we are taken to Windsor Castle, where King Charles I was executed; we learn that he was allowed to read his First Folio in his cell as he awaited his fate. Then King Charles III walks in, inspects his predecessor’s copy of the precious book, and makes the remarkable discovery on camera that they both shared the habit of annotating their copies of Shakespeare: the deceased monarch with a quill pen, the living one with Post-It notes.

Scenes like this make it clear that the filmmakers had the access and wherewithal to go anywhere they wanted and have anyone they wanted in their documentary. So it was a bold and deliberate choice that the Royal Shakespeare Company gets only a passing mention, and our only encounter with the knighted giants of British theatre is a brief glimpse of Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench unveiling a statue in Stratford-upon-Avon. Instead the film takes us across the pond to New York’s Public Theater, where we explore three innovative productions under their aegis: a mainstage production of Hamlet set in a Black community in present-day Georgia; a bilingual musical based on Comedy of Errors that plays on pop-up stages in New York’s Hispanic communities; and a South Bronx middle-school production of Romeo and Juliet in which the actors playing the title roles are even younger than the characters. In doing so we learn that the themes of Hamlet are as resonant as ever to today’s young Black Americans coming out of the pandemic; that just under the farcical surface of Comedy of Errors is a story of migrants, family separation, harsh laws and economic inequality that is astonishingly accurate and relevant to millions of people today (and taking a more serious approach to those themes is not a stretch because it’s right there in the text); and the events of Romeo and Juliet are still sadly possible, as there are still violent communities steeped in religion, tradition and ancient codes of honor that force their kids to grow up too fast, too often with tragic consequences. We also learn that Shakespeare’s language can actually be helpful for those for whom English is not their first language, as it helps them explore nuances of vocal expression applicable to any language. 

And, don’t worry, our own backyard is not neglected: the film includes three visits to the Folger Shakespeare Library, each with a fascinating story to tell (one of which involves its role in an international crime with a tragic ending worthy of its own play.) 

It’s important to remember that if it weren’t for the First Folio the name of William Shakespeare wouldn’t be much better known than Christopher Marlowe, John Webster or Ben Jonson. While about half of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in some form of print during his lifetime, it’s worth listing all the plays that we wouldn’t know at all if not for the First Folio:

All’s Well that Ends Well
Antony and Cleopatra 
As You Like It
Henry VI, part one 
Henry VIII
Julius Caesar
King John 
Measure for Measure 
The Comedy of Errors 
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Winter’s Tale
Timon of Athens 
Twelfth Night 

The First Folio begins with several pages of dedicatory material that’s worth reading, not because it’s on Shakespeare’s level of artistry, but precisely because it isn’t: it’s a parade of the voices of his friends and contemporaries who knew that, for an all too brief time, they were in the presence of someone extraordinary. We owe them a debt of gratitude for preserving his work for us - in all its iconic, scrappy glory.

Making Shakespeare: The First Folio premieres on PBS’s Great Performances on Friday, November 17 at 9 pm.

Making Shakespeare

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