A few weeks ago, I had the chance to participate in a printing workshop at Folger using a replica of a printing press like the ones used in Shakespeare’s time. The invention and popularity of the printing press changed the way books were produced, increasing the output and cutting the cost of making a book. This was a technological revolution of its time, initiating an “information revolution” like the internet did in our day. Participating in the printing workshop reminded me of the power of the book.
Several months ago, I visited Maggs Brothers, a dealer of rare books in London. There I was able to see and handle several rare books. There’s something amazing about being in a room full of books that may have been a special possession of someone who lived in London while Shakespeare was there. Perhaps someone saved and carefully selected this volume, took days to select a particular binding, and kept it in a place of honor in her home. The value of any book includes a history of ownership, of discovery, of excitement. While I was in Maggs, one of the dealers had a package of books delivered. His delight at the receipt of these books was fascinating. He called his colleagues to watch him open the box and unwrap the books, showing each one and sharing the story of how he had discovered it.
In our day of desktop publishing and printing on demand, as well as tablets, the value of a book as an object is sometimes hard to remember. My experience at the printing workshop was a great reminder of how much effort went into the creation of a single volume.
First, we apprentices had our orientation. As all the participants were women that day, none of us would have been involved in printing in Shakespeare’s day when all compositors, printers, and publishers were men. But we forged ahead.
First, we set our type in the composing stick. This takes extraordinary care, right down to the correct way of holding the stick. Type is set upside down, one letter at a time. We each set our own names, which should have been simple. I selected my upper case letters from the upper case, and the lower case letters from the (you guessed it!), lower case. I don’t have a p or a q in my name, so I didn’t need to “mind my Ps and Qs.”
I set the letters one at a time, holding the stick in one hand and setting with the other. I managed not to “pi the type,” the phrase used for dropping the type and mixing it up.
I know the spelling of my name, but I still managed to get a letter upside down and needed to make a correction. With the error, I didn’t make a great “first impression” when I printed my sample copy. However, I was able to make the correction and make a better impression the next time.
The printing of Early Modern Books, such as Shakespeare’s First Folio, tells us a great deal about play making in Shakespeare’s time. We at Folger Ed recently conducted a student program that focused on inviting participants to create their own small folio. Students learned about compositors, printers, and publishers. They practiced assembling a “quire” of pages and setting up a phrase starting in the middle and working simultaneously backwards and forwards, as compositors did with their manuscripts. The students were enthusiastic about creating their folios.
Inviting students to put themselves in the atmosphere of a dirty, smelly, crowded, and chaotic print shop in Shakespeare’s time is one way to explode the assumption that experiencing Shakespeare is a quiet, serious experience. The printing process reminds us—Shakespeare is all about playing with the language.