SANTA FE, N.M. — Even if you never read Shakespeare and think his language is far too dense to penetrate, there’s a good chance you have quoted his writings without even knowing it.
If you’ve cautioned someone that “all that glitters is not gold” or claim that someone is “playing fast and loose,” you’re quoting Shakespeare. You also are if you say you “wait with bated breath” or see something in “my mind’s eye.” Or perhaps you conclude that “the game is up,” or that “all’s well that ends well,” or even that “discretion is the better part of valor.”
William Shakespeare’s influence on the English language has been huge, according to Mary Kershaw, director of the New Mexico Museum of Art, who came up with those examples. “A number of phrases in common parlance are from Shakespeare,” she said.
And some of those phrases might have been lost to our tongue if not for the First Folio, a copy of which will be exhibited at the museum Feb. 5-28, said Kristin Bundesen, a co-founder of the International Shakespeare Center in Santa Fe. She gave the opening lecture this week for the exhibition to a not packed, but comfortably filled auditorium of avid listeners at the art museum.
Fully half – 18 of Shakespeare’s 36 plays included in the First Folio – were not published in any form until the First Folio came out in 1623, she said.
Unless another effort had been made to record them, we would have been missing such common phrases as “It’s Greek to me” when you’re befuddled by something (“Julius Caesar”), the need to “break the ice” at a social gathering (“The Taming of the Shrew”), and the feeling of being “in a pickle” (“The Tempest”). You wouldn’t be able to refer to something as the “be-all and the end-all” (“Macbeth”), enthuse over “a dish fit for the gods” (“Julius Caesar”) or muse about something taking “forever and a day” (“As You Like It”).
Aldous Huxley might have had to think up a different title for “Brave New World” (“The Tempest”) and we never would have been able to rely on the “milk of human kindness” (“Macbeth”).
It makes our language feel downright impoverished to be without these and many other expressions that were coined by Shakespeare.
One audience member at Bundesen’s talk Wednesday wondered if Shakespeare would have reached the same level of literary legend if those 18 plays had been lost to posterity.
“I’m not sure if Shakespeare would be Shakespeare. I don’t know if less volume makes him less important,” Bundesen said.
As it is, in the First Folio, that volume amounts to about 900 pages, printed on sheets of 14″ x 18.” A weighty volume, both by mass and by the value of the content, she said.
But none of the words is carved in stone, she added. When the pages were printed, someone checked them for errors and made corrections – but only on later printed pages. The pages with the errors were not thrown away; they still were used in the folios, Bundesen said. Not a single First Folio of the 233 still known to exist contains exactly the same text, Bundesen said. All are a little bit different.
And if you look at the plays that were published earlier in quartos – pages folded twice (sort of the 17th-century version of trashy airport novels) instead of once as in the folio version – the variations broadened considerably, she said. Second through Fourth Folios also were printed with “improvements,” but the First Folio is believed to be closest to Shakespeare’s actual language, she said.
(By the way, Shakespeare’s works have been printed in more than 80 languages, including Klingon, according to Bundesen.)
Not only do we lack certainty on the exact wording of Shakespeare’s original plays, we’re not even positive what he looked like. The engraving in the front of the First Folio of his portrait was made by someone who had never met Shakespeare, she said. It allegedly was modeled on a painted portrait, but even then it wasn’t known who painted it or if that person actually knew the playwright.
So maybe it’s appropriate, Bundesen said, that written comments by Ben Jonson opposite the portrait instruct readers to “look not on his picture, but his book” (spelling modernized).
The First Folio was the first publication of its size with plays, she added. Previously one would expect a bible or law book to be contained in such an impressive volume. Plays were considered entertainment for the masses, not literature, Bundesen said.
Yet, somehow, Shakespeare’s friends and actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, got the plays published seven years after their author’s death. Both men had been named in Shakespeare’s will, which left them some money intended to buy rings to memorialize him, as was common at the time, she said.
At their printing (and scholarship has wavered on exactly how many copies were printed – estimates now hover around 750), each book cost an English pound, about $150 in today’s currency, according to Bundesen. But, even with a First Folio selling in 2001 for more than $6.1 million, it’s still not the most expensive book ever. It comes in around number 10, depending on how you count the three copies of Audubon’s Birds of America that sold for more.
The most expensive book ever?
Bill Gates paid $30.8 million ($49.4 million in current dollars) for the Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci in 1994 – then scanned it and made it into his screensaver, she said.