mccrum on books

William Shakespeare at 400: Why the First Folio is the greatest single volume of work in English literature

This year marks 400 years since the first publication of Shakespeare’s plays. The ‘First Folio’ was a labour of love and a statement of intent, writes Robert McCrum – and yet, the Bard would express mystified pleasure at the fuss we’ve been making

Tuesday 14 November 2023 16:52 GMT
It is 400 years since the first publication of Shakespeare’s plays
It is 400 years since the first publication of Shakespeare’s plays (PA)

William Shakespeare would have smiled at this 400th anniversary of his First Folio. He always revelled in the dramatic present. No fewer than three of his plays begin with “Now”. Imminence is his default position, and that’s Elizabethan: from sunrise to sunset, Shakespeare’s age lived in the present moment.

Such immediacy is a constant thread in the tapestry of thought and language that will become a hallmark of Shakespeare’s genius. And yet, paradoxically, for a writer so attuned to the present moment, he’s a tortoise as much as a hare. His literary afterlife is the triumph of the long game: scarcely a hint of celebrity in his own day, and more than a hundred years of neglect and obscurity after his death in 1616.

Authorship in Elizabethan times was not the phenomenon we know today. If Shakespeare had died of the plague before 1600, we’d remember him as a poet. In the celebrations surrounding the quarter-centenary of the First Folio, the greatest single volume in English literature, the most remarkable fact about this literary event would be the playwright’s bemused surprise, even mystified pleasure, at the fuss we’ve been making.

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