Far be it from me to write a review of the literary merits of The Bard. There have been plenty of people much more learned than me that have spent their lives doing just that in the almost 400 years since his death. I’m sure many doctorate degrees have been earned studying him and many pints have been tossed while discussing him. But I can chime in on what Shakespeare means to me and how I experience the Folio Society’s Letterpress Shakespeare editions.
I love Shakespeare’s work and always have. Once as a teen, I was offered “anything I wanted” for babysitting the children of some family friends. I’m sure they thought we’d be heading off to some toy or hobby store for some cool model or such. But no, I wanted an edition of the complete plays of Shakespeare. I still have that book to this day. And I still remember the lines from Romeo and Juliet I had to memorize for ninth grade English class.
The format of the books, or set really, is basically a large hand bound, letterpress volume accompanied by the corresponding commentary volume that is a specially bound copy of the Oxford University Press Shakespeare. The two books are enclosed in a solander box.
There are many ways to enjoy reading Shakespeare and I think that with this series of limited editions, the Folio Society has struck a good balance. Although I love some of the illustrations in other limited editions, they do sometimes get in the way of reading the lines. It’s nice to take advantage of all the Shakespeare scholarship out there and have good introductions and background information on the plays. Footnotes calling out and clarifying difficult words and phrases are also handy. To address this, the Folio Society has basically created a “clean” letterpress edition with a companion volume with all the extra information. When I am looking for the sheer enjoyment of the whole book experience, I reach for the Letterpress Shakespeare. If I want to delve deeper and pull out every nuance, I take out the companion volume. It’s a nice compromise.
The letterpress books feature mould-made paper that presents a nice deckled edge and is quite nice to the touch. They are quarter bound in Nigerian goatskin leather with beautiful hand-marbled sides. The leather is died red for tragedies, blue for histories, and green for comedies. The marbling for the earlier titles was done by the late great Anne Muir and the more recent titles are being done quite capably by Jemma Lewis. The titles are blocked in gold down the spine. They are large, at about 14” by 11”, but not so large to become too cumbersome for reading comfortably. I’ve even been known to pace back and forth in my library reading it aloud (as Shakespeare ought to be read) but usually only when I’m home alone.
The commentary volume is specially bound in buckram and measures about 9” by 6”. The buckram-bound solander box has a leather title label blocked in gold.
I suppose if there is a downside to this series, it is the sheer amount of shelf space that would be needed to house the complete plays once the Folio Society gets through them. And it looks like that might just happen within the next couple of years as they have been publishing them at a clip of four to eight titles a year. I estimated that it would take about ten feet of shelf space were one to display them vertically in their solander boxes. The lack of illustrations might be an issue for some but clearly got in the way of the Folio Society’s aim to create the “ultimate reading edition” of Shakespeare.
I’ll be highlighting some other editions of Shakespeare’s works in the future but for sheer readability in a fine edition, these Folio Society editions will be hard to beat.
Availability: The first few plays that were published were limited to 3750, maybe because they were some of the more popular titles like Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. The Sonnets & Poems is limited to 1850. The remainder of the plays are limited to 1000 copies. I believe that all of the titles are still available directly from the Folio Society and can also be obtained at rare booksellers and occasionally on eBay.