393 Years of Printing: Plays to Pancakes on a Pilgrimage

· 26 February 2017 ·

[My visit with a copy of the First Folio]

It’s been a long time since my last post. Mea culpa. Perception of time changes once our mortal coil has been shuffled off. I’ve been online for a little over a year, but one out of the 413 since my demise does not make for much of a habit.

Yet I’ve not been idle. I did some wandering in the American Antipodes. While there I had occasion to spend time with another of my significant books. The Book, if we’re choosing only one. Venerated far more widely than those I described in my previous post, this one dates from my own era. It’s old. These days it’s usually kept out of sight, well away from the dangerous and the profane. For this special viewing it was brought forth from its tabernacle, encased in a transparent reliquary, and guarded by a hovering acolyte. The lighting was reverentially low. Admittance into its presence was restricted to only a few of the waiting faithful at a time. I hope you’re getting my analogy.

The other books were written about me, but this one is my work. Never mind what the title page says. You and I know better.

The Book is of course the First Folio, the earliest published collection of thirty-six of my plays, printed in 1623 by Isaac Jaggard, in collaboration with bookseller Edward Blount.

First Folio, 1623Click on the image to see a (much) larger
version in a new tab. (4000×2700 px, 3.4 MB)

Along with 81 other copies of the 233 known to survive from the original print run of 750, this First Folio normally resides within an inner sanctum at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. To the Folger I am a lurking devil, the root of heresy… but let’s not go there now. After all, if it wasn’t for this one quibble, I’d assert that they were doing an admirable job with their co-opted portion of my legacy. Make that two quibbles: I still want my Bible back. They keep that locked up too. Or maybe it’s three, since I’m not fond of the fact that so much of my stuff is immured an ocean’s distance from its origin. Just because a well-heeled Colonial who helped run Standard Oil in the days of the robber barons was able to buy me up and build a big bookshelf, doesn’t mean it’s proper. But possession is nine points of the law, so there I sit.


170226-ff-1pg-sm-598x800You can click on this one too. (3024×4048 px, 4.9 MB)
I did a small bit of photoshopping to remove
glare spots caused by the glass.

The Book was open to Hamlet’s existential crisis, which begins near the bottom of the left-hand column on the page shown. It was frustrating not to be able to examine more of them. I would have liked to get close to Martin Droeshout’s engraving of you-know-who, at the front of the book. Just myself and that dubious cartoon: nose to mask, eye to eye. Willy’d blink first, you know it.


To substitute for the inability to peruse, the exhibit included a full-sized reproduction (the Norton Facsimile edition) within which perusing was welcome, and a computer set to the Folger’s browsable copy of their First Folio No. 68. This resource is available to all via the web. As I’ve said, these folks do a nice job. Except.

A video documenting the library’s history played on a loop in an adjacent room. You can see it on YouTube.

Large posters displayed information about the First Folio and Shakespeare’s* impact on the English language. The lighting on these was uneven so the photos are less than optimal, but here they are. Click on a thumbnail, then use your browser’s back button to return to this page.


There were moments when I had to bite my tongue to avoid consternating the congregation, but I sealed up my lips, and gave no words but mum. Accepting received truth on faith is so much easier than discovering the truth for yourself, or admitting that your catechism might be wrong. I wondered how many of the flock around me had ever been told anything about the 17th Earl of Oxford. Very few, if any.

Encourage a young person to look me up. Offer help if they want it. It’s the most effective thing you will ever do for me.

I knew I’d have to play a silent role amid this gathering – it was not an occasion for revelation or dispute. “I’m the gent who really wrote these plays. Ask Me Anything!” Alas, no. Discretion was not only the better part of valour, it was the better part of intelligence. That acolyte might have been armed. It was America, after all.

Sometimes you have to suspend your disbelief for a while and just try to enjoy the show. Even with all the limitations, The Book was worth seeing. I’m glad I took off my shoes and made the pilgrimage.


But what does the First Folio of 1623 have to do with pancakes? Aside from the four times you find the word in the book, I mean. (Thrice, plural, in As You Like It, and once, singular, in All’s Well That Ends Well.)

Consider – first came Gutenberg. Then in England, Caxton, Pynson, and de Worde. They were followed by Field, Roberts, the Jaggards, and more, as literacy increased and the demand for books grew apace. Fast-forward past the steam-powered presses of the Industrial Revolution, hot-metal typecasting, photo and digital typesetting. Xerography. Inkjets. Laser printers. Now in this century we are seeing the growth of 3D printing, where it’s no longer just ideas on paper being reproduced, but physical objects. You can roll a 3D-printed, 154-sided Sonnet Die to select your next poem from the quarto. How awesome is this?


Very, verily. But not as awesome as this:


A pancake printer. I encountered it during my travels. Press the button, wait a bit, then out pops a pancake. Instead of ink, a bag of batter. The cooking surfaces are nonstick belts rolling between two heating elements. I made the attendant open the lid and show me the insides. She thought I was barmy. I thought it was genius.

This isn’t my video, but here it is in action:

And if you’re barmy like me, here’s how it works:

I admit that in my present state I don’t have much use for breakfast. But even so, the pancake printer might surpass the First Folio as the pinnacle of my pilgrim’s progress. It’s a close call.