Whereof are you made? Shakespeare’s Inspiring First Folio

A few weeks ago the Cadbury Research Library held a lovely event to welcome the arrival of a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio into the University’s collections. The First Folio itself was on display along with many other Shakespearean related treasures and beautiful editions of the works. The ability of the written word to transmit Shakespeare into different forms and eras, the metaphysical properties of the text itself, were revealed in the pieces presented on the evening; whether through Dr John Jowett’s lecture, the readings of selections of Shakespeare’s works, through the illustrations and various editions of the works. Shakespeare’s presence was evoked through ink and paper, voice and image.

One of the highlights of the evening were the contributions made by the students of the University. This original work written in honour of the occasion by Richard O’Brien wonderfully brought together the themes of the evening and to myself, a librarian, illuminated the physical miracle of the printed word.

Whereof are you made?

Cut rags to ribbons. Bring them to the boil,

then beat them into pulp. Set up a frame.

Remove the frisket. Give the tympan oil.

Lay out the letters of a normal name.

Wait for a wasp to swell an oak with gall,

then crush the growth and stir it in hot piss.

Dampen the paper. Fetch a leather ball,

and roll it in whatever comes of this.

Blacken the type, then lock the page in place.

Push in the press bed. Pull to wind the screw.

Lower the platen. Black marks on white space.

Open the hinges. Lift out something new.

Do this all day, in dim light. Here it stands:

one man’s words, and the work of many hands.

Richard wrote about the idea behind the poem and his discovery of Elizabethan printing techniques.

“When I first spoke with Martin Killeen about writing a poem for the Folio event, I wanted to do something about the proliferation of editions and the fact that all the libraries of Shakespeare texts we have today only exist because of this one little (though not that little…) book. The idea of that contingency was what I wanted to explore: if not for this one volume, we wouldn’t have Twelfth Night, Macbeth, the Droeshout engraving… Martin kindly put together a list of all the historically significant editions the Cadbury could supply for handling, and fetched them up from the stacks. I was scrabbling around for something about mighty oaks and little acorns, but it didn’t quite work and eventually I gave up on the idea entirely, after Martin had gone to the trouble of getting all the books out. (Thanks, though!)

Instead I decided it’d be more interesting to think about the contingency of the Folio as a physical object. I’d recently been to the American Bookbinders Museum in San Francisco – which I highly recommend – where an extremely cool woman showed me how to use a 16th-century screw press and talked to me about the making of rag paper. A few days later my girlfriend showed me a clip from BBC coverage of, I think, the Chelsea Flower Show, with a woman talking about wasps and galls and I thought – that should not be what we have to rely on to print great literature. And yet obviously it is, and all these strange, messy, organic components are brought together in a very labour-intensive, human process, using some quite elaborate machinery, for us to be able to have this book at all. And the works of Shakespeare are sometimes imagined as this kind of transcendent thing, living in the mind – and their existence is completely reliant on some torn-up rags and some tree bark having a bit of an over-reaction. I thought there was something fascinating about that, and I just wanted to convey the sense of process and the work involved. The title comes from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which is similarly trying to struggle with how something – someone – came to be the way they are, and that was the final piece of the picture, really.”

Huge thanks to Richard for allowing us to print his great poem on our blog (which may also get framed and hung in the library to remind us of those valued physical items we call books!).

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian


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