Shakespeare's most cynical drama
The siege of Troy was the story of stories, the subject of Homer’s Iliad. This particular episode – the love between the Trojan prince Troilus and Cressida, the daughter of a Greek traitor – was the subject of Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s greatest poems. Even Shakespeare must have felt some trepidation in tackling it.
And yet, what Shakespeare manages to give us is something entirely unexpected: here we ﬁnd no epic heroism, no great love story, but instead the most cynical drama he wrote.
The ﬁgures of epic legend are revealed as unworthy: Achilles, the hero of Homer’s tale, is portrayed as a ridiculous, sulky brute, whose ﬁnal slaughter of the unarmed Hector is far from noble. Troilus pretends to be a lovelorn hero, but his cultivation of Pandarus is unsavoury at best. When Cressida comments that ‘things won are done’, she prophesies her own future, despised as a whore by both Greeks and Trojans. Even Troilus’ laments for her inﬁdelity seem like posturing when compared to his true grief after Hector’s death: ‘Hector is dead; there is no more to say.’ Troilus lives, but the ending remains unrelievedly bleak, the audience know Troy will fall and even Pandarus’ ﬁnal jokes on his likely death from the pox are too bitter for laughter.
‘Some two months hence my will shall here be made. Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.’
The play came into its own after the First World War, with its own bitter legacy of betrayed heroism. Troilus and Cressida is often revived for its very contemporary commentary on war and the relations between men and women.
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.