Preface to the First Folio Edition of Shakespeares Plays
Henrie Condell and Iohn Heminge (1623)
TO THE GREAT VARIETY OF READERS
1 FROM the most able, to him that can but spell: There you are numberd. We had rather you were weighd. Especially, when the fate of all Bookes depends vpon your capacities: and not of your heads alone, but of your purses. Well! it is now publique, & you wil stand for your priuiledges wee know: to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first. That doth best commend a Booke, the Stationer saies. Then, how odde soeuer your braines be, or your wisedomes, make your licence the same, and spare not. Iudge your sixe-penorth, your shillings worth, your fiue shillings worth at a time, or higher, so you rise to the iust rates, and welcome. But, what euer you do, Buy. Censure will not driue a Trade, or make the Iacke go. and though you be a Magistrate of wit, and sit on the Stage at Black-Friers, or the Cock-pit, to arraigne Playes dailie, know, these Playes haue had their triall alreadie, and stood out all Appeals; and do now come forth quitted rather by a Decree of Court, then any purchasd Letters of commendation.
It had bene a thing, we confesse, worthie to haue bene wished, that the Author himselfe had liud to haue set forth, and ouerseen his owne writings; But since it hath bin ordaind otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envie his Friends, the office of their care, and paine, to haue collected &publishd them; and so to haue publishd them, as where (before) you were abusd with diuerse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of iniurious imposters, that exposd them: euen those, are now offerd to your view curd, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceiued them. Who, as he was a happie imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: and what he thought, he vttered with that easinesse, that wee haue scarse receiued from him a blot in his papers. But it is not our prouince, who onely gather his works, and giue them you, to praise him. It is yours that reade him. and there we hope, to your diuers capacities, you will finde enough, both to draw, and hold you: for his wit can no more lie hid, then it could be lost. Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe: and if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him. and so we leaue you to other of his Friends, whom if you need, can bee your guides: if you neede them not, you can leade your selues, and others. and such Readers we wish him.
Note 1. Little more than half of Shakespeares plays were published during his lifetime; and in the publication of these there is no evidence that the author had any hand. Seven years after his death, John Heminge and Henry Condell, two of his fellow-actors, collected the unpublished plays, and, in 1623, issued them along with the others in a single volume, usually known as the First Folio. When one considers what would have been lost had it not been for the enterprise of these men, it seems safe to say that the volume they introduced by this quaint and not too accurate preface, is the most important single book in the imaginative literature of the world. [back]