The First Folio: a compositor speaks

Re-setting of The Tempest in 2023

Celebrating the 400th anniversary of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, the Bodleian Bibliographical Press offers a type reproduction of the first page of the first play in that book, The Tempest. Two modern typesetters have reproduced the page hand-set in type, recreating the habits, faults and foibles of the original compositors of the First Folio. Below are reflections on the experiment. The printed Tempest sheets are on sale in the Bodleian Shop. Members of the public will have a chance to print their own on Sunday Nov. 19 at the Weston Library; see Event listings for details.

Michael Daniell writes:

‘The Tempest’, the first play in the folio, also happened to be one of 19 Shakespeare plays for which there was probably not an earlier printed version. So one would have expected it to be designed and typeset with great care. As Richard Lawrence and I proceeded with the typesetting, I soon came to realize that what passed for acceptable in 1623 London would not pass muster today.

There is erratic spacing around punctuation and there is no sign that its purpose was to fill out the length of a line. Casting an eye down the left-hand margin of each column showed that there was no consistency in the space used to indent a speaker’s name. Sometimes this seemed to have been so that a word did not have to be broken at the end of the line, but often there was no apparent reason for what we would regard as poor alignment of text. There were instances of awkward work breaks at line ends: en-ter, e-nough, ma-ster, roa-rers, han-ging, drow-ning.

It is known that there were four stages of correction made to this page while it was on the press, the first stage being the correction of the initial letter which had been positioned upside-down. (See Charlton Hinman, The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare, 1963). The correction of such an obvious mistake suggests that there may have been earlier stages of correction to the main body of the text in galley before it was made up into a page. It is perhaps significant that the other three stages of correction that we know about involved the larger 24-point display lines such as the Act heading, that might have been added last.

After working on the setting of ‘The Tempest’ at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press, I decided to print a further folio page on my own press. I’d read that the first page of ‘The Tempest’ had been set by a particular compositor, identified as Compositor B, who set almost half the pages in the First Folio. I wanted to print a page associated with Compositor A, who only set a quarter of the book. My choice was the first page of ‘1 Henry VI’ as it was distinguished by an elegant tapered block of stage directions. It also had a fine headpiece ornament that was also used to introduce 12 other plays in the book. I checked that my play was also one of the ones that had not been printed previously in quarto, and so might be a fair comparison with the work of Compositor B.

In my typesetting of the ‘1 Henry VI’ page, I found that there were no word breaks, though there were some very tight lines, in one of which Compositor A had resorted to the use of an ampersand. There was the same irregular spacing around punctuation, and the same irregular use of swash italic letters. As these italic letters occur in the speech headings, any inconsistency is particularly conspicuous. Other features of Compositor A’s setting included more frequent use of capital letters introducing nouns, and slightly more consistent indentation of speech headings.

A check of the other plays in the folio showed the same inconsistency in the use of swash italic letters but there were fewer awkward word breaks and the spacing of punctuation points was more as we would expect today. This was also the case when I looked at two other books printed on the Jaggard presses in 1622, William Burton, The Description of Leicestershire and the third edition of Thomas Wilson, A Christian Dictionarie.

The aim of typesetting two pages from the First Folio had been to reproduce the 1622-23 printing as closely as possible.  We used 14-point Caslon cast by the typefounder Stephenson Blake, a typeface that comes close in appearance and size to the type used to set the original First Folio. We followed the 17th-century practice of setting the lines without interlinear leading, a process that presents challenges when making corrections or moving lines once they are set as the individual pieces of type all too easily slip from one line to another.  The format of the First Folio followed the Golden Mean, 1:1.61. Because of the different size of the type, our efforts were necessarily wider, 1:1.52, but the effect was still striking and I hope would have met with some approval from the original compositors and printers.