A Folio Society limited edition

The Letterpress King John

William Shakespeare

A bleak and ruthless play in which a series of wars in which nobles defect from one side to another seem to achieve little.

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The Letterpress King John

'Now for the bare-picked bone of majesty
Doth dogged war bristle his angry crest'
Act 4, Sc. 3

John succeeds to the throne after the death of his brother Richard the Lionheart, and is at once threatened by rival claimants, including Richard’s bastard son Philip and his nephew Prince Arthur. John kidnaps Arthur and orders his murder; although the boy is released, he dies shortly afterwards in murky circumstances. It is a bleak and ruthless play: a series of wars in which nobles defect from one side to another seem to achieve little. From the Pope to supposedly honourable kings, every character is revealed as having an eye only to his own interests. Patriotism, religion, family loyalty – all are exposed as mere covers for the endless alliances and betrayals of politics and power-brokering.

King John was probably written in 1596, just after the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet. The speech in which Arthur’s mother, Constance, mourns her son is one of the most moving in all Shakespeare’s work, and has often been highlighted by critics as a possible reflection of Shakespeare’s own bereavement:

Production Details

The Letterpress King John book
  • Limited to 1,000 copies, individually numbered on a special limitation page.
  • Quarter-bound in goatskin leather, blocked in gold with hand-marbled paper sides; gilded top edge and ribbon marker.
  • Set in 16pt 'Monotype' Baskerville, printed by letterpress on mould-made paper.
  • Oxford University Press text, edited by A. R. Braunmuller under the General Editor Stanley Wells.
  • Presented together with a commentary volume which includes the text of the play with full explanatory notes.
  • Supplied in a buckram-bound solander box measuring 15" x 11" x 2¾". Letterpress volume: 14" x 10¾".
  • Commentary volume: bound in buckram. 8¾" x 5¾".

Creating The Letterpress Shakespeare

Since the First Folio in 1623 there have been countless editions of Shakespeare's works. The Folio Society wanted to do something unprecedented: to design an edition so pure, so simple, that the beauty of the text could be fully appreciated - an edition that would be as timeless as the text itself.

What would the ideal version of Shakespeare's works look like? What would result if simplicity and elegance were the goal rather than the dictates of fashion and cost efficiency?

These were the questions we asked ourselves when we embarked on our Letterpress Shakespeare series in 2006. The project was to occupy some of Europe's finest book designers, typesetters, paper-makers, printers and bindersfor eight years.

The starting point was the text. Rather than keep text and commentary together, we decided to put them into separate volumes. Out went the elements that clutter the page : footnotes and textual variants. All that was left was Shakespeare's words.

We decided to have the text printed by letterpress in 16-point Baskerville. The type is set in hot metal and impressed on thick, mouldmade paper. The margins are generous - over 6 centimetres - to allow the words room to breathe.

The result is a simple, understated design that is a delight to read and a pleasure to hold.

Read more about how we made the Letterpress Shakespeare

Inside the Letterpress Process

Stan Lane, a master Typesetter and Printer, talked to us about the process of printing our letterpress Shakespeare. Lane has been setting type for The Folio Society for 25 years and is one of the few craftsmen still skilled in the fine art of letterpress printing. Although labour-intensive, letterpress has a depth and elegance that modern printing cannot replicate.

Jemma Lewis talked to us about the process of hand marbling paper for the letterpress Shakespeare. In this beautiful process droplets of oil are floated on a special solution and combed into patterns so that each sheet of paper bears a unique design. 


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