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The best books on Shakespeare’s Reception

recommended by Emma Smith

Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book by Emma Smith

Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book
by Emma Smith


In the years after William Shakespeare died, his plays took on a life of their own. They meant different things to different people at different times as they spread around the world, turning a glover's son from a one-horse town in central England into one of the best-known authors of all time. Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford, recommends books to better understand 'Shakespeare reception'—the study of Shakespeare since his death.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book by Emma Smith

Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book
by Emma Smith


Before we get to the books, could you tell me what Shakespeare reception is? When I studied English literature at high school in the late 1980s it didn’t come up at all, but when I talk to students now, ‘reception’ seems to be a big thing.

The idea of reception comes from Classics. Classical reception is the study of Classical texts not in their own period, but the way that they have been deployed and reinterpreted. Other authors have had some of this, but Shakespeare in particular has now started to be seen through the lens of reception. That includes aspects of the history of Shakespeare studies, of reading, theatre, editing, adaptation and so on. It’s everything except Shakespeare in the period 1590 to 1616 (or 1623, at a push).

Is the idea that what’s happened since his death is as lively—or even livelier—than what was happening during Shakespeare’s life (1564-1616) and in the plays at that time?

It picks up on a broader, literary, cultural trope, which was reader-response theory. This was the sense—particularly from the 1980s onwards—that what makes the literary text is an interaction between the text and the reader, and that readers are key to making meaning. Maybe reception studies is a sort of 3D version of that. It emphasizes the role of creative engagement with Shakespeare, rather than Shakespeare, the author, as the source of all the interest and interpretation that’s in the text.

So there has been a shift away from only thinking about Shakespeare in terms of ‘What did the Elizabethans think about the divine right of kings (or social hierarchy or comets etc.)?’ That work is still being done and it’s very lively. But people now come with intellectual training that is different from the old Renaissance world—when you had studied Latin, maybe, or early modern history. Now people come who have an interest in media or critical race studies, or gender studies. Or a later period of history. All that attaches itself to ideas of reception.

In the UK, nearly everyone has studied at least one Shakespeare play while at school, so it is a reference for many people. I suppose that common experience is what makes Shakespeare particularly popular for reception?

You’re right, although sometimes I think it’s a bit circular. Because it’s a common experience and there’s quite a high cultural recognition factor, you’re more likely to get money or to get audiences if you adapt a Shakespeare play than if you write a new play that covers some of the same material. There is a self-sustaining Shakespeare loop, in a way. Because we know about it, we invest more time and energy in it. And because we invest more time and energy in it, it looks more interesting and contemporary, and because it’s more contemporary, we do more of it. What would happen if we had a moratorium on that? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting counterfactual.

Your wonderful book, Shakespeare’s First Folio, is out now as a 400th-anniversary edition. Does it fall under Shakespeare reception? Or is it more the biography of a book? Tell me how it fits in.

What I was trying to do in my book was put a material object, Shakespeare’s First Folio, into conversation with reception theory. When we talk about Shakespeare reception, we’re usually talking about Shakespeare as a transcendent set of characters or ideas—something that moves around the globe, perhaps getting adapted or translated. It’s a set of ideas or a discourse. I wanted to think what that would look like if there was a very physical object at the heart of it. When does this book go around the globe?

So yes, I think it is about Shakespeare reception, because one of the things I was arguing is that you can understand how people thought about Shakespeare and what they wanted Shakespeare to be by the way that they handled copies of this particular book.

For those who haven’t heard of it, could you quickly explain what the First Folio is?

The First Folio is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. It was published posthumously in 1623. It gathers 36 plays (none of the poems) under the title Master William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies.

The idea of the First Folio is obviously a much later way of thinking about this book. It only becomes ‘first’ when there are second, third and fourth folios. It’s itself an anachronism. One of the things that I discuss in my book is how Master William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies became the First Folio and one of the most financially valuable books in the world.

Growing up, I lived in the US and had ‘Folger’ editions of Shakespeare. I didn’t really know what ‘Folger’ referred to. After reading your book, I realized, ‘Aha! He was a millionaire obsessed with collecting First Folios.’

He was completely obsessed. He made his money in Standard Oil at the turn of the 20th century. One of the things I’ve been interested in is how, certainly since around the end of the 18th century, these books have gone where there is money. From the end of the 19th century until the First World War, they went in very large numbers to the newly wealthy New World. In the 1970s and 1980s, with the post-war economic boom, they went to Japan. Nowadays, there is a lot of interest in trying to sell a copy to Hong Kong or China, or to the Arab-speaking countries in the Middle East. So far, as far as we know, there isn’t one there yet but there will be. Throughout my book, I’m toggling between—or trying to raise discomfort about—artistic and aesthetic value on the one hand and real dollars on the other.

“We invent the Shakespeare that we want or that speaks to our time”

I suppose for me the 1623 First Folio is also the moment when Shakespeare’s reception begins. People had gone to Shakespeare plays and read Shakespeare before. But they’d done that largely within the same context in which he wrote the plays. They were acted in the same theater by the same theater company and were continuing that tradition. It feels to me that in 1623 this book was handed over to readers. It was severed, in a way, from the theater and from the author. This was the moment of the handover to the great period of reception.

And I gather from your book that Oxford’s Bodleian Library didn’t have any Shakespeare plays before the First Folio because its founder, Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), thought having plays would bring it into disrepute.

Yes, absolutely. The Bodleian Library in Oxford had a deal with the Stationers’ Company that they could have a copy of any book published. But they didn’t take the play books, because Thomas Bodley was explicit in excluding them saying that everybody would laugh at his new library if it was filled with plays.

One of the things the First Folio was trying to do when it was first printed—and it was a bit of an uphill struggle—was to reframe drama as serious literature. It does that by printing it in a format that looks like a Bible rather than like a pamphlet. This isn’t convincing, necessarily, to everybody, but the Bodleian Library do take the First Folio. The format perhaps already makes it looks a bit more respectable than other versions.

Then there’s a hiccup in this story, because probably when the third edition of the book was published with some extra plays in 1663, the Bodleian got rid of its First Folio. It was probably a textbook updating move which, of course, in retrospect looks like a terrible mistake, but was completely a standard thing to do at the time.

Let’s go through the books you’ve recommended, starting with the best edition of Shakespeare’s plays to read. You’ve picked out The Arden Shakespeare Third Series specifically. Could you explain why that is the series to go for?

Shakespeare editing has gone through different phases. It’s had different projects at different points in its history. Is the aim trying to make a perfect text? Or is it trying to imagine the text as Shakespeare wrote it? Of course, the whole discipline is haunted by the fact that there are no manuscripts. We’ve only got these printed texts. Do we think Shakespeare might have revised his plays? Or do we think that if there are differences or problems in the text, it must be because somebody has copied it down wrong or misheard or transcribed it differently?

Above all, what’s the role of the theater? In some ways, the whole project of editing a book of plays is contrary to the fluidity that those texts would have in the theater. What to do with theatre and drama as part of editing has long been a question. We haven’t decided yet. Editing continues and people make different choices.

What Arden Three tries to do is to bring a sense of theater—both in the Shakespearean period and since—into questions of ongoing performance traditions. The series looks at how the text enables those and what the text of the play gains from that context. Theater is really important to Arden Three.

The Arden Three series has also moved on slightly from previous editions, where the introduction started in quite a dry way, with a history of how we got the text. For most people, that’s just a turnoff. Arden Three editors have tried to set up why this play has mattered and then come to those sorts of questions later.

So if you just want one play—a play that you’re studying or a play that you’re interested in—I would get the edition in the Arden Three series that you need. If you’re looking for the complete works of Shakespeare, there is a complete Arden which is absolutely fine, but it doesn’t have all the notes and all the material which I think makes the individual plays so valuable.

Are you recommending the Arden Three series as a good introductory text for anyone who is interested in reading a Shakespeare play or specifically because of how it covers the plays’ reception?

The series is good because it acknowledges that shift in how we see Shakespeare that we talked about right at the beginning. The Shakespeare text isn’t just a product of what went before, in some interesting ways it’s the product of what comes afterward and that’s the point of interest.

I’ve got my copy of King Lear here, which I studied at school. You’re right that the introduction from this older edition doesn’t exactly draw you in—in the first paragraph it says that “The total number of variants in the twelve extant copies is 167, though some of the emendations were incorrect.” I’m not surprised 17-year-old me didn’t read on.  

Absolutely. Why would you? They can seem really dry. I still think they’re not necessarily absolutely introductory texts. If I were recommending a Shakespeare series to someone at school, I might not choose these, because they’re quite serious and they’re quite hardcore. There are a lot of notes on the page, and you might sometimes open up the pages of the play and think there’s more commentary than there are actual Shakespearean lines. That can be exciting but can also be very off-putting.

Sometimes I suggest to people who are maybe reading Shakespeare for the first time that they read without notes. In a funny way, it can build your confidence to think, ‘I don’t exactly know what that means, but I get the gist: this is angry, or this is romantic.’ That’s probably what you need if you’re reading Shakespeare for the first time.

In the Arden Three series, is there a play that particularly stands out that we can use as an example?

The play that came to define the series was Jonathan Bate’s edition of Titus Andronicus. That was a play that no one had really thought much of before and Bate did a really, really good, critical rehabilitation job on it. So, I think that’s a good example.

Let’s move on to the next book you’ve chosen. This is Reinventing Shakespeare (1989) by Gary Taylor, which you described in your email as a romp through the history of Shakespeare since 1623. Tell me about the book—it sounds quite lively!

It’s a very lively book. It’s a novel, in a way. It’s not quite as if Virginia Woolf’s Orlando were Shakespeare but it kind of is. There’s a sense of our hero moving through time and having different adventures along the way. That’s the narrative of this book.

I think Taylor is a brilliant scholar, probably one of the most brilliant Shakespearians of our time. What he’s done in this book is condense a huge amount of work into something which is readable and interesting. He shows how people just wanted different things from Shakespeare at different times. Maybe at certain times they wanted him to be more classical, at others more English and his Englishness became important. Or they wanted to argue about whether the comedies or the tragedies were better, or whether he was good at women characters or not.

Taylor takes these themes through history and shows that there isn’t an answer. This isn’t a historical progress, where we’re getting closer to an answer. It’s a really good reminder that what you can see at historical distance is that we invent the Shakespeare that we want or that speaks to our time. Sometimes you can’t quite see that when you’re doing it. You think, ‘This is objective Shakespeare’ or ‘This must be true.’ This book makes it quite clear that’s what we’re doing and what we’ve always done.

Is there an example from the book that particularly stood out for you?

There’s a great chapter where he talks about Shakespeare in the 18th century. Academic prose is not often the loveliest thing to read but this book really has fun with its own writing. Taylor writes the 18th-century chapter as if it were a novel. He talks about the encounter of Shakespeare with these different editors—this sequence of men who really did care about Shakespeare and argued about him. Other accounts make this seem deadly boring. It’s really hard to make it feel relevant or interesting now, but Taylor really brings it to life.

Then he has a great chapter—which I suppose comes right up to his present—about a big argument at an American Shakespeare conference in the 1980s. The argument was about whether Shakespeare had revised his own plays. Do the two versions of King Lear that we have from 1608 and 1623 represent Shakespeare’s own revisions? It’s hard to think that that would have been such a hotly contested issue, but he talks about why that was such an electric moment in the scholarly discussions.

Let’s move on to the next book you’ve chosen, which is Ayanna Thompson’s Passing Strange. “Passing strange” is of course a quote from Othello. Thompson is a professor at Arizona State and she’s looking at Shakespeare and race, particularly in the context of contemporary America.

I wanted to include one book by Ayanna Thompson, so I chose this one. She is one of the leaders of the most interesting work on Shakespeare that’s being done now, which is part of a collective called RaceB4Race. It’s how Shakespeare’s works have been part of the invention and reification of racial categories. This book is about how 19th and then 20th century America took on Shakespeare’s plays and re-engineered them to speak to the two sides of the Civil War, for instance, as well as post-Civil War questions. It looks at how black theatre companies and black actors, from Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) to Paul Robeson (1898-1976), became prominent in Shakespearean theater. She gives us not an alternative history—that would suggest that there is a true history—but shows us that Shakespeare has been, and continues to be, a part of discussions about race right through the history of America.

When I went back to this book, it gave me a context for why American culture wars are still preoccupied by Shakespeare and why when your graduate school takes down a picture of Shakespeare and puts up a picture of Audre Lorde or Zora Neale Hurston (say) it becomes a crisis. She helped me to see how it is that at a point of extreme polarization in American politics, Shakespeare is always part of the discussions.

I’m partly Jewish and The Merchant of Venice is one of the Shakespeare plays I read at school, so I’m aware of some of his limitations. But, as I understand it, Ayanna Thompson is not saying ‘Oh, Shakespeare is really racist here’ or ‘He’s really going for ethnic stereotypes there.’ She’s looking at both sides, in a way: how he has helped black empowerment as well as some of the racism in the plays and how it should be approached. Is that right?

Yes, and whether taking out particular lines is an appropriate thing to do in contemporary theatre. Thompson is a big fan of Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus as a figure of black empowerment rather than Othello, the character these productions tended to move towards.

I think this is a place where reception helps us, because reception can’t really tell us anything about what Shakespeare intended. That’s not interesting to reception. It doesn’t say, ‘Shakespeare is this or that.’ It says, ‘these plays come forward at these points in history, and they make these kinds of waves.’

The question of the Merchant of Venice is a really interesting one. There have probably been more calls for The Merchant of Venice to be suspended from the canon than there have been Othello.

I’m not surprised because, to me, Othello comes out looking a lot better than Shylock. But I suppose everybody has their own interpretation…

I suppose with both plays, one of the critical questions has been, ‘Is this play racist, or is it about racism? Does it have any distance as we look at the characters or structures or societies that are producing these racist stories? Or is that distance just collapsed and we’re right there saying, ‘Hurray! Antonio is saved and Shylock is forced to convert.”

Let’s turn to Judith Buchanan’s book, Shakespeare on Film.

This is a great book about one of the liveliest art forms that has been stimulated by Shakespeare, which is film.

Judith Buchanan is an expert on silent Shakespeare film, which is a brilliant paradox. One of the things she shows is how the new technology of film—which was somewhat associated with peep shows or slightly sensationalist, saucy material—tries to lift itself up by engaging with classics and particularly with Shakespeare. It’s an interesting observation because it helps you see that just about all new technologies have a go at using Shakespeare to raise the cultural credentials of what they do. We’ve seen that with apps and various kinds of modern technologies.

She isn’t just talking about silent Shakespeare in this book, she’s talking about film, right up into the 21st century. She talks about some classic films like Orson Welles’s Macbeth and Othello and more recent films like Julie Taymor’s Titus (it’s on the cover).

“Reception can’t really tell us anything about what Shakespeare intended”

In the book, Buchanan moves us away from a language that we used to have, which was, ‘How close is this to the text? How faithful an adaptation is it?’ Instead, she comes at it more from a film background to ask, ‘How successful is this film at translating or transforming a 16th-century play into a 20th-century film?’ That means cutting a huge amount of dialogue and using the visual, not just to tell the story, but to carry the metaphorical content of the language.

She writes about how Orson Welles’s film of Othello has all these images, like shadows cast in a cage or net pattern. Although it doesn’t always have the language that Shakespeare uses, nevertheless it’s got the same metaphors as the language has. She’s really brilliant at showing how films translate into cinematic language some of the complexity of what Shakespeare is doing.

I noticed she has a chapter on Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, his King Lear adaptation, so it is also international.

Yes, it is. The book looks at films from different backgrounds. It’s not just about arthouse films. There’s more about Hollywood films towards the end of the book.

Continuing on that international theme, your last choice is The Palgrave Encyclopaedia of Global Shakespeare, edited by Alexa Joubin of George Washington University.

In some ways, this is a bit of a cheat. It’s when you’re on Desert Island Discs, and you choose ‘the complete works.’ I was really struggling to think of a book that both registers the enormous energy and creativity of non-English language Shakespeare and Shakespeare reception and is also attentive to some of the potential problems about that spread.

Oxfam is a global organization, but so is McDonald’s. It is Shakespeare or is it McShakespeare that what we’re getting by spreading this product around? Was it originally a colonial and now a neo-colonial engagement? How do societies and cultures make Shakespeare into their own property? Do they? Or does it always carry the slight otherness of having been originally in the English language and sometimes imposed on different cultures?

This is a book that I wouldn’t expect anybody to read from cover to cover. But if you wanted to look at this whole international, trans-historical issue of how Shakespeare went from being a glover’s son in a one-horse town, Stratford-upon-Avon, to being probably the most globally recognized author of all time, it traces some of those tracks.

Is it looking at the history?

It’s looking at the history, although it’s not organized chronologically; it’s also looking at the geography. For example, ‘What are the traditions in Japan and Japanese? What parts of Japanese theatre does Japanese Shakespeare pick up?’ The Kurosawa film, in a way, is a blending of the Shakespearean story and aspects of Samurai and other cultural narratives that are more specific to Japan.

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Where and when did these texts go? What was the role of translation? We learn that quite a lot of translations into non-European languages go via French or German, not directly from English. There are lots of interesting things about that.

In some ways, the spread of Shakespeare could be your history of globalization itself: the routes, the media, the individuals, the financing, the consequences. It’s almost as if you had one of those dyes that are used to see an X-ray. Shakespeare would be like that dye, and you would see how England, Britain and America extended their influence around the world.

I’m always quite intrigued by translations in that they can instantly modernize the language. As an English speaker, if you’re going to read Shakespeare, you’re probably going to read the 16th-century original. But if you decided to read it in Dutch, it would probably be in 20th- or 21st-century language.

One thing about translations is that they seem to date more quickly than the original which—not just in Shakespeare—often seems to have a timeless quality. Translations keep being redone, not because they’re not good, but because they have to be of their time. You can’t get away from that.

I did once watch the beginning of Kurosawa’s Macbeth film with a group of Japanese students. I was talking about Shakespeare to them, but I thought it’d be interesting to include something they’d be able to tell me about. So, there’s a prologue to the film and there’s a translation in the subtitles. I asked what it meant, and they said it was such a weird form of Japanese they couldn’t understand it. They preferred the English. I found that interesting. As quite a monoglot person, I like to learn more about how these things work.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

July 18, 2023

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Emma Smith

Emma Smith

Emma Smith is Professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University. Her book The Making of Shakespeare's First Folio (2015), tells the story of the birth of the First Folio and Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (2016) describes its reception over the four hundred years of its history.

Emma Smith

Emma Smith

Emma Smith is Professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University. Her book The Making of Shakespeare's First Folio (2015), tells the story of the birth of the First Folio and Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (2016) describes its reception over the four hundred years of its history.