In 1623, Shakespeare’s plays were published together for the first time as a printed collection, known as the First Folio. To mark 400 years since the occasion, the Folio Society has published his work in a limited-edition set of three volumes, divided into the Comedies, the Histories, and the Tragedies as per the original, and featuring two plays that weren’t included at the time.
The publications feature 39 illustrations by Neil Packer, who also designed the intricate binding seen across the set. Although it was no more technically difficult than other projects, the artist described the commission as both “a tremendous honour” and a “huge responsibility” to visualise “arguably the most important work in the English language”.
Packer sought to “pare down” the illustrations to avoid clashes with the typography. “They should really be a moment of pause between the works and not a distraction,” he explains. The text uses just two colours, and he applied the same limitation to the illustrations.
He also wanted to make them feel “rooted in the images of Shakespeare’s period” while reflecting styles and tastes created after his time. “The universal truth within the work of Shakespeare has kept his work alive over the centuries and it was important to try to pay homage to some of the interpretations that have spanned the 400 years since and yet at the same time maintain some continuity.
“There are subtle hints of both mid- and turn of the century styles, also nods toward Victorian and Regency periods within the images too, but above all I have tried to keep these images rooted in the 16th century.”
Packer’s woodblock style is an emulation of the traditional craft, adapting modern techniques to create a manual feel, for instance using Photoshop but opting for a “deliberately clunky mouse to introduce cut marks that emulate a woodblock tool”. He then applies textures that he’s created using a roller and ink. “I deliberately have only learnt a tiny portion of Photoshop and I employ a strict dogma so that all lines and textures are created on paper using old school techniques thus avoiding any digital tools,” he explains.
“The real difficulty was in distilling the plays down to a single image and putting clear water between all of the illustrations so that a play could be potentially identified from the image alone,” he says. “I would try to find a unique moment that could only be from a particular play but at the same time it couldn’t be so obscure that it was unidentifiable.
“A good example would be from the Two Gentlemen of Verona. A good deal of the storyline of this play is driven not by the titular Two Gentleman but through the musings of their servants Launce and Speed. Some fun is had at the expense of Launce’s dog Crab, said to be the funniest non-speaking role in all of Shakespeare, but more important than this, Crab is the only dog in the whole of Shakespeare thus making his inclusion an obvious pointer to that play.”
One of Packer’s friends, who is well-versed in Shakespeare, managed to identify most of the nearly finished illustrations without any hints, which he took as a positive signal that he had successfully allowed the playwright’s work to do the talking.
“Shakespeare is impossibly good at depicting the human condition,” Packer says, “he explores in his beautiful language all of our passions and flaws against the background of historic, tragic and comedic events both personal and global. Impossible ideas to try to illustrate and in a way my job was to stand back and let Shakespeare do that for us.”
The Complete Plays is published by the Folio Society; foliosociety.com