“To be or not to be. Aye, there’s the point. To die to sleep, is that all? Aye all.”
No, No, NO! It’s wrong, all wrong. And therein lies a story.
If you were to travel back to mid-1500’s England, you wouldn’t find any theatres. Europe was still getting over the ravages of the Black Death, and the idea of packing hundreds of people into a closed building still felt a bit risky. Plays were performed out in the street, in a country field, anywhere folks could circle round and listen.
But in the second half of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, England became extraordinarily prosperous. London boomed with an influx of workers, tradespeople and servants, all restless, all looking for some form of entertainment. In 1576, a radical new idea was launched: a permanent playhouse, a building known simply as “The Theatre.” It was an open-roofed structure with a stage on one side, standing room on the ground floor for the common folks, and two stories of wraparound balconies for the rich and the nobility. It was a complete enterprise, with an in-house production staff, a permanent set of actors, and a staff of writers who created new stories that became the property of the theatre’s owners.
The Theatre was a massive success, with folks lining up to see every new production. Soon rival theatre companies were popping up all over London in order to meet the demand. One such company, who called themselves “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” in honor of their sponsor, built a theatre called The Globe on the banks of the Thames. Between 1589 and 1613, they rolled out a series of theatrical wonders, many written by a staff playwright named William Shakespeare. His plays were so good and so heavily anticipated that, sure enough, they began to attract the attention of unscrupulous characters. Folks started sneaking into The Globe to try to watch rehearsals. Given the chance, they might steal an actor’s dog-eared script. On opening night, they would scribble down the dialogue as best they could, and try to sell it to a competing company. And then somebody got the sinister idea of rendering Shakespeare in a revolutionary new way: on the printed page.
In 1594, the first pirated copy of a Shakespeare play – Henry VI, Part 2 – hit the streets. It was published in “Quarto” format, which was rudimentary way of using Guttenberg’s amazing printing press to produce pamphlets on the cheap, by printing eight pages on a standard printing sheet, folding it twice, cutting and binding it. The thing was riddled with errors and was missing about a third of the content. Nonetheless, a second play – Titus Andronicus – followed in the same year, with similar shortcomings. Over the next decade, a total of 19 Shakespeare plays were pirated and published in Quarto, all filled with errors, omissions and fake additions.
As for Shakespeare himself, he had none of his works printed before he died in 1616. Which resulted in the odd situation wherein the only “published” works of Shakespeare – the 19 pirated Quartos – were entirely incorrect. Moreover, Shakespeare had written several dozen plays in over 20 years, and the condition of many of these original scripts were suspect at best. No wonder, then, that arguments started to break out over Shakespeare’s legacy. Which plays did he write? Did he write them alone? What words did he intend? And just who was this guy?
Thankfully, in 1623, two of Lord Chamberlain’s Men came to the rescue. John Heminges and Henry Condell – both long-time actors in Shakespeare’s company – declared it was time to put an end to the “stol’n and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors.” Scouring through all the sources – even comparing notes with some of the publishers of the pirated versions – they compiled a total of 36 plays. The resulting 900-page work was printed in a size twice as large as a Quarto, known as a Folio. Approximately 750 copies of this “First Folio” were printed, and sold for a pound apiece, which is about $200 in today’s dollars.
What a bargain. Today, a first edition of the First Folio is worth about $5 million. Only 228 copies remain. Though these first editions contain errors that have subsequently been corrected, and folks still argue over many of the finer points of Shakespeare, the First Folio remains the definitive source, the mother lode, the one true anthology of Shakespeare’s genius. And the one source that got the wording right:
To be, or not to be, that is the question-
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
Lord Chamberlain’s Men took Shakespeare’s question to heart, and they answered him. They took up arms, they ended the piracy, and they got it right.
On his 450th birthday, here’s to the men who saved Shakespeare.