The Letterpress Shakespeare

While your Arden edition might be a little easier in the hands, The Folio Society’s new Letterpress Shakespeare titles are a typographic indulgence that attempt a renewed engagement with the bard’s plays and sonnets

While your Arden edition might be a little easier in the hands, The Folio Society’s new Letterpress Shakespeare titles are a typographic indulgence that attempt a renewed engagement with the bard’s plays and sonnets…

The Society’s aim is to present Shakespeare’s words “in their purest form” and so the pages of each of the plays are devoid of the clutter of notes and glossaries, unlike most regular editions of the playwright’s work.

Of course, for most readers these elements are more than useful, so an accompanying “commentary” edition of the play is also included in each boxed set.

Therefore what the reader encounters in the large-format main edition is just the text: and in 16 point Monotype Baskerville, printed by letterpress onto thick, mould-made paper with feathered – ‘deckled’ – edges, it’s a treat to behold.

This aspect is the real highlight of the project – and the most labour intensive. Each volume was apparently printed just two pages at a time, each page having been put together by a skilled compositor at Gloucester Typesetting Services in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire.

This method, with this paper, means that the words are impressed deep into the page. I had a close look at a copy of King Lear and the quality of the lettering on the paper is sublime.

On the outside, each book is quarter-bound in leather with individually hand-marbled paper sides – complete with gilded top edges and a ribbon marker. The plays are divided into three colours: a dark purple-blue for the histories; red for tragedies; and green for comedies.

The solander box which houses everything continues the ‘traditional’ look and if anything is perhaps a bit on the pragmatic side – sturdy no doubt, but it’s overtly functional-looking, which jars a little with the hand-crafted nature of the type and paper within.

Needless to say, with only 300 copies of each volume available, they don’t come cheap: each play is £295; the volume of sonnets and poems, £345; the complete set coming in at £11,555.

So while hardly bringing Shakespeare to a wider audience – there are plenty of other publishers that can do that – these editions do at least honour the quality of the writing within. And there’s something about reading the text on the page without distraction that makes it a worthwhile experience, too.

Folio Society titles are available for purchase from foliosociety.com, by telephone on +44 (0)207 400 4200, or by visiting The Folio Society Bookshop, 44 Eagle Street, London WC1R 4FS.

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