Shakespeare’s legacy is now identified with and embodied in the book we now call the “First Folio,” published posthumously seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1623. The volume of thirty-six plays was compiled by John Heminge and Henry Condell, Shakespeare’s friends and fellows in the King’s Men theatre company. The book was in part an act of commemoration and remembrance, as they sought to do what Shakespeare had failed to accomplish, or even to take an interest in: collecting and publishing his plays. Heminge and Condell wanted to “perfect” Shakespeare’s literary corpus by correcting and consecrating his dramatic works. Yet as they also pleaded, in a letter directed to potential customers, “what ever you do, Buy.”
The commemorative intention of the compilers thus intended on the commercial success of the book – and that success hinged on a foul-mouthed and cash-strapped old bookseller with no formal connection to the Folio project. Matthew Law was fortunate to own the rights to the three best-selling Shakespeare plays in print: 1 Henry IV, Richard III, and Richard II, and so he was in a position to drive a hard bargain with the publishing syndicate, led by William and Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount. In late 1622, the Jaggards stopped printing Richard II, and proceeded by working around the three titles owned by Law. The Folio could hardly appear without Shakespeare’s most popular plays – plays that were now being rebranded as a part of a continuous sequence in the section of “Histories.” Law saw his advantage, and attempted to capitalize on what was a much-needed business opportunity.
Despite his judicious surname, Matthew Law did possess a rebellious streak. He was fined on numerous occasions for disregarding company orders, and once found himself in prison. This was not uncommon for middling stationers, but Law distinguished himself by being unable to keep his mouth shut, even when he had done nothing wrong, and he was fined several times for swearing and “using unfitting words” in the presence of the wardens of the Stationers’ Company. By 1620, his business had fallen off, and he had a good reason to fear for his financial future, one that remains all too familiar today: he could not afford to send his son to college.
In early December of 1622, Law and another stationer appeared before the wardens for their failure to repay a debt. His companion that day was none other than Edward Blount, one of the publishers of the Folio, and their appearance coincides with the interruption in the printing house. For both Blount and Law, this was an opportune moment for financial negotiation. The printing of Law’s three plays soon recommenced, and Law even reprinted cheaper and more accessible quarto editions of his plays to accompany (and to exploit) the publication of the Folio.
The First Folio was intended to be – and continues to be considered as – a monument to Shakespeare. Indeed, there is even a monument dedicated to the Folio. Yet this book, and the version of Shakespeare it presents, was a contingent and commercial enterprise produced by a number of stationers with competing interests. Only later would it become the monumental and recognizable book it is today. In this centennial year, as we commemorate Shakespeare’s death and celebrate his legacy, we should remember the printers and publishers who helped shape that legacy – including the profane and impoverished bookseller Matthew Law.
To win Selling Shakespeare: Biography, Bibliography, and the Book Trade enter our daily Shakespeare giveaway, Much Ado About Winning – www.cambridge.org/shakespearewin