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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Folger Gems

During King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s repertory run at the BAM Harvey from March 24—May 1, audiences are in for a treat—rare and ancient artifacts from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC will be on display in the Harvey lobby, including two quartos and two promptbooks. Viewers will also see a video and visual history of Shakespeare performed at BAM through the ages, focusing on the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Macbeth annotated promptbook, courtesy Folger Library and Museum.
By James Shapiro

Coming to the Harvey: Rare Shakespeare Quartos and Promptbooks 

Think of a Shakespeare quarto as an inexpensive paperback. It’s called a quarto because the sheet of paper on which it was printed was folded in half, then folded in half again, producing eight pages (four double-sided leaves). Limited to print runs of a thousand or so, Elizabethan quartos were sold unbound and quickly read out of existence. Few have survived: the first of two extant copies of the 1603 quarto of Hamlet was only rediscovered in 1823 and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the sole surviving copy of the first quarto of Titus Andronicus was found in the home of a Swedish postal clerk.

Early quartos of Shakespeare’s plays are exceedingly scarce. For comparison’s sake, while the Folger Shakespeare Library possesses 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), it owns only two 1598 and two 1615 quartos of Richard II.

Both copies to be displayed at the BAM Harvey will open to the play’s most politically charged moment, Act 4, scene 1—the deposition of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV. Crucially, in the earlier version on the left, 163 of the play’s most sensitive lines are missing, including King Richard’s poignant words as he surrenders his crown. The deposition scene was undoubtedly censored out of fear of offending Queen Elizabeth, who saw herself figured in her predecessor: “I am Richard II,” she famously said, “Know ye not that?”

Richard II continued to speak to its political moment. A few years later it was this very scene that likely encouraged the followers of the Earl of Essex to pay Shakespeare’s company to publicly stage Richard II on the eve of Essex’s failed uprising against the queen in 1601.

Before Shakespeare’s plays could be staged they had to pass the inspection of the Master of the Revels, who apparently approved of this scene in 1595. But censorship of printed texts, which fell to the Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, could be more stringent; that is the likeliest explanation for the cut made in the earliest quartos. It was only after the death of Elizabeth in 1603 that the censored lines could safely be restored to printed editions, seen in the 1615 quarto.

There will be a pair of promptbooks on display at the Harvey, on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library—one of Charles Kean’s Richard II, the other of Edwin Forrest’s Macbeth. What came to be called the promptbook (or simply “book”) was a vital part of the Elizabethan theater. In Shakespeare’s time, acting companies changed the play they staged every day and their repertories consisted of a dozen or more new plays in addition to a score of popular old favorites. 

Charles Kean costume designs for Henry V. Courtesy Folger Library and Museum.
It’s remarkable that Elizabethan actors could memorize and recall so many parts, and lapses were inevitable. So a prompter stood by, promptbook in hand, ready to call out a line, remind a tardy player of his entrance, or signal when music or stage effects were required. Elizabethan promptbooks (only a few survive) were essentially marked up copies of play scripts, and often noted cuts or revisions as well. By the 19th century many promptbooks had become increasingly elaborate, and it was not unusual for them to be published.

BAM opened in 1861, only 12 years after the infamous Astor Place Riot, when thousands of New Yorkers protested the performance of Macbeth by the leading British actor William Charles Macready, the great rival of the American Shakespeare star, Edwin Forrest. The protest turned bloody when the State Militia opened fire on the rioters, killing 20 and wounding 100 or so. Lingering tensions perhaps explain why, when the forerunner of the modern-day RSC first performed in the US in 1913 under the aegis of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, the multi-city tour steered clear of New York City. According to The New York Times, the leader of that company, Frank Benson, was quoted (he insisted misquoted) as saying that he wouldn’t “play New York because New Yorkers were not educated up to Shakespeare.”

Astor Place Riot newspaper page. Courtesy Folger Library and Museum.

At BAM in 1865 Charles Kean performed the role of a wronged and dignified Shylock, a role for which his father, the famous British Shakespeare actor Edmund Kean, had been widely celebrated. His beautifully annotated version of Richard II on display, illustrated by Thomas Willement, gives some sense of the status and appeal of Shakespeare playbooks by the mid-19th century. Edwin Forrest played Macbeth at BAM in 1862, a year after its opening, and the final page of his promptbook in the Harvey display shows the sort of extensive cuts typical of 19th-century productions, with Malcolm’s final speech cut in its entirety, and Macbeth (played by Forrest himself) given all but the last word.

James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University, and has written a number of books on Shakespeare, including the latest,
The Year of Lear (2015).

Treasures from the Folger Shakespeare Library is made possible thanks to the support of The Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust and the Leon Levy Foundation.

Additional support provided by Jim & Mary Ottaway.

Reprinted from March 2016 BAMbill.

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