'You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!'
Act 1, Sc. 2
In the First Folio of Shakespeare, The Tempest was placed first - an unmistakable sign of the importance attached to it by its editors. For generations of Shakespeare scholars this play was the epitome of Shakespeare's work. The play is concerned with tragic as well as comic themes, making it a play that defies easy categorisation. This lends it a fascination which has compelled the attention of critics and audiences alike ever since it was first performed.
The Tempest was Shakespeare's last play. After 1611, other than contributing occasionally to Fletcher's plays for the King's Men, Shakespeare appears to have retired from the stage. For many readers, it has been tempting to identify Prospero, the ageing magician who resigns his powers, with Shakespeare, the playwright who is also leaving 'the great globe itself' and all 'this unsubstantial pageant'. Prospero is a kind of playwright, putting on a 'masque' and manipulating all the characters to play their parts in his dramatic plan.
The moment when Prospero offers to break his staff is one of great ambivalence. Do we rejoice at his return to political power or mourn the loss of his magical powers? Shakespeare too, retiring to the comfortable wealth of his property and business interests in Stratford, might well have missed the applause he alludes to so feelingly in the epilogue: 'And my ending is despair/ Unless I be relieved by prayer'.
Shakespeare's age was one of exploration. The New World, as described in the books we know Shakespeare read, seemed at once a paradise and a savage wilderness. The inhabitants had equally contradictory reputations. Many commentators have perceived in Miranda and Prospero's attitude to Caliban a reflection of European views on slavery and colonisation. Yet Shakespeare gives Caliban some of the most powerful lines in the play - his articulate defence of Prospero is almost heroic, while his speech 'Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises' displays a far from 'monstrous' lyricism and sensitivity. Usurpation and betrayal run throughout the play: First Antonio takes Prospero's dukedom, then Prospero rejects Caliban's claim to the island and lastly Stefano attempts to make himself 'king o'th'isle'. Shakespeare surely invites us to make comparisons - and judgements - between them.
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From the choice of text and meticulously designed pages to the mould-made paper and unsurpassed art of letterpress printing, attention has been lavished on every facet of the reading experience.
The result is a fit and harmonious balance between the internal and external: a volume which is not only a delight to look at and hold, but a joy to read; formed not for mere display, but to satisfy the passion for his language felt by all those who love Shakespeare.
Produced to the highest standards, using only the finest materials and processes, each volume is a work of art in its own right.
The layout of words on a printed page is as much an art as such ancient techniques as Chinese or Arabic calligraphy. Here, the text is designed by eye and set on a manual machine, not a computer. Each letter of type has been created from hot metal in the rarely used 16-point font of 'Monotype' Baskerville, chosen for its clarity and elegance of form. Tiny irregularities testify to the hand-crafted nature of the process, since the shape of each line, the very gap between letters, is adjusted by hand to create the most pleasing overall effect.
Letterpress printing today is used only for the very finest, private press publishing. Running your fingers over the rag-content paper, letterpress is instantly distinguishable from commercial litho printing. You can feel the indentation where each letter has been impressed into the mould-made paper.
To make these beautiful books The Folio Society is calling upon the full resources of a range of artist-craftsmen.
Cotton mixed with pure wood fibres dries slowly on a cylindrical mould to make this specialist paper. When the sheets are removed, the feathered edge at the sides is called the 'deckle'. The high cotton content ensures the paper is stronger and will retain its distinctive quality for generations, which is why artists and galleries choose it for fine art prints and etchings. The pages are folded in sections of eight for a perfectly flat opening to the spine, and only the top edge is trimmed.
Top edge gilding is a traditional finish, protecting books' exposed tops from dust, moisture or atmospheric pollution. The three-quarter binding of finest Nigerian goatskin leather is dyed for an exact match, but the gold and scarlet pattern on the hand-marbled paper sides is unique to each volume, since the exact pattern of droplets can never be repeated. For Ann Muir, marbling the paper for the individual books of Shakespeare's four great tragedies will take nearly half a year of continuous labour.
The small craft bindery of Lachenmaier in Germany has won a record number of prizes in the 125 years it has been binding fine art and speciality books. There, an experienced team of craftsmen sew, case in and bind the book. Both the spine and separate leather label for the solander box are hand-blocked in 22-carat gold.