Published seven years after the playwright’s death, many plays that were never printed in his lifetime, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar, might otherwise not have survived.
Shakespeare possessed a sound knowledge of shipping and maritime matters. The first play in the First Folio is The Tempest. The reader is at once presented with a ship wrecked in a violent storm and a depiction of human relations transformed by that disaster. The story of the loss at sea of a rare First Folio reads like a Shakespearian drama in its own right.
Published in 1623, the First Folio is the earliest collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. The folio format was an expensive publication, with each sheet of paper folded just once, creating a very large book. The text was collated and edited by two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell. They also supervised the printing.
The finished copies contained over 900 pages (containing thirty-six plays), including dedicatory verses by Ben Johnson. William and Isaac Jaggard were not only the printers of this massive work, but they also acted as publishers of the book running a shop at the “Sign of the Half-Eagle and Key” in the Barbican.
The First Folio features on its title page the famous engraving of Shakespeare’s portrait by Martin Droeshout. The latter was born in London in April 1601 into a Protestant family that had escaped Catholic repression in Brussels around 1569. Martin would become a prominent member of London’s immigrant artistic community.
Droeshout’s image is one of only two Shakespeare portraits with a claim to authenticity. As the artist was fifteen years old when the author died, it is unlikely that the two actually met. Instead his picture was probably drawn from the memory of others or from an earlier portrait. In his verse “To the Reader” at the start of the First Folio, Ben Jonson declares that the engraver captured a good likeness.
It is estimated that around 750 First Folios were printed of which 235 are currently known to have survived worldwide (50 copies are in Britain, 149 in the United States). The British Library owns five; the Huntington Library in California has four; the New York Public Library holds six. An extraordinary 82 copies are housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
Puritan migration started in 1620 when the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth towards the Hudson River. Blown off course, the ship landed on the tip of what is now Massachusetts. Settlers resisted all forms of entertainment to prevent people being distracted from worship. They brought their intense suspicion of the theatre with them.
Playhouses were considered the plague of modern life. To them, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre represented an infestation of immorality. They had escaped England just in time. Three years after their arrival the First Folio was published in London.
In Massachusetts and Pennsylvania laws were passed to forbid the production and performance of plays. Such measures were supported by Quakers who shared deep suspicions towards the stage. As a result, it took time for the theatre to establish itself in America, but Shakespeare intervened. The city of New York set the pace.
On March 23, 1730, an advertisement signed by one “Doctor Joachimus Bertrand” appeared in the New York Gazette announcing a production of Romeo and Juliet. There is no further evidence that the play was actually staged, but if the occasion did take place it would be the first recorded American performance of a play by the Bard.
Manhattan’s first playhouse was John Street Theatre, sometimes called the “Birthplace of American Theatre.” Built in 1767 by the English actor and theatre manager David Douglass, it introduced audiences to The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and other Shakespearian dramas.
Performances in New York continued during the Revolutionary War, even during the British occupation of the city. On July 14, 1787, George Washington left crucial discussions on the Constitution to attend a production of The Tempest.
After the American Revolution, restrictions on the theatre were relaxed. As Shakespeare began to monopolize the stage, this change in climate encouraged English actors to try their luck on the American stage. New York City emerged as the center of performing arts, a sort of Stratford-upon-Hudson.
A complete issue (eight volumes) of the Bard’s Plays and Poems was published in Philadelphia in 1795/6, calling itself the “First American Edition.” With Puritan bias and reservations swept aside, Americans embraced Shakespeare as their “national” poet.
The Revolution changed everything. It brought to prominence a generation of Shakespeare lovers and, subsequently, inspired a number of keen collectors of Shakespeareana.
An immensely rich man, Henry Clay Folger was President of Standard Oil of New York. He and his wife Emily were obsessional gatherers of “anything Shakespeare.” They became known as the most successful First Folio “hunters” of all time.
Between 1893 and 1928 the couple traced and purchased eighty-two copies of the book and then built a library in Washington, D.C. to house them together with the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare memorabilia. The Folgers were the most spectacular of collectors, but they were by no means the only ones.
Cunard versus Collins
A pre-condition of building such specific collections was the ability to travel between America and Britain and establish a network of contacts. After the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent two years later, commerce between the two nations exploded. The number of ships sailing between New York and Liverpool increased sharply. The first sailing packet ships began their runs in 1818.
By the mid-century the transport of passengers had become a viable business, creating intense competition between companies on both sides of the Atlantic (most aggressively expressed in who made the fastest crossings).
The battle for supremacy was epitomized by the rivalry between Samuel Cunard (Cunard Lines) and Edward Collins (Collins Lines). Having backed the losing side in the Revolutionary War, the Cunard family of Philadelphia found themselves refugees resettled by the British in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Following in his father’s footsteps who had invested in maritime transport, Samuel won lucrative contracts to ship mail and tea. He quickly built an oceangoing empire.
Edward Collins’s father ran a small coastal packet-shipping company which made the regular run from New York to Charleston. His son had much bigger ambitions. He decided to beat British transatlantic dominance and out-rival Cunard whose ships were dependable, but cramped and uncomfortable. The Collins Line had their ships designed for speed and comfort.
Having secured the business backing of James and Stewart Brown of the Wall Street investment bank Brown Brothers & Company, Collins managed to get a contract from the government to carry the US Mail between New York and Britain.
The S.S. Arctic was built at a shipyard on the foot of 12th Street and the East River. Launched in early 1850, it was one of four ships of the Collins Line (her sister ships were the Atlantic, Pacific and Baltic). A comparatively large ship, its engines powered paddle wheels on either side of its hull.
Containing spacious dining rooms and saloons, Arctic offered its passengers luxury conditions never before seen on a steamship. Under the command of Captain James Luce (an officer born in Plymouth County, Massachusetts), she set a stunning record in February 1852 by steaming from New York to Liverpool in nine days and seventeen hours.
Tragedy at Sea
On September 13, 1854, Arctic arrived in Liverpool from New York with a cargo of American cotton destined for British mills. On her return trip, the ship carried some four hundred people on board, 150 crew and 250 passengers, including members of both the Brown and Collins families.
On the morning of September 27 she sailed through a thick wall of fog in an area of the Atlantic just off Newfoundland where warm air from the Gulf Stream hits cold air from the north. Shortly after noon, lookouts sounded the alarm that another ship had suddenly emerged from the mist. The two vessels were on a collision course.
The French propeller steamer Vesta was transporting fishermen from Canada to France at the end of the summer’s fishing season. Built with a steel hull, the Vesta rammed the bow of the Arctic. The French ship stayed afloat; Arctic sailed on, but the damage to its wooden hull proved fatal.
Captain Luce tried to maintain discipline in the midst of the crisis, but the crew panicked and took possession of the six lifeboats on board, leaving passengers to fend for themselves (Antoine Agénor, Duc de Gramont, on his way to the United States to take up his role as French Ambassador, was one of the few passengers who secured a place in a lifeboat). The icy waters made survival unlikely. More than 300 people died, the majority of them passengers. All women and children on board perished.
Edward’s wife, Mary Ann Collins, drowned as did two of their children. The daughter of his partner James Brown was also lost, along with other members of the Brown family (a monument at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, is dedicated to their tragic deaths). Public outrage over the disaster triggered significant maritime reform and would lead to the tradition of saving “women and children first” being enforced in subsequent maritime accidents.
There was another significant loss caused by this maritime calamity. New York lawyer Aldon W. Griswold was a Shakespeare enthusiast. Having purchased a First Folio from a British dealer, he arranged for the treasure to be shipped “safely” from Liverpool on board the Arctic.
The book was lost in the disaster. Griswold would become one of America’s greatest Shakespeare collectors, but after that titanic tragedy he never again tried to acquire a First Folio.
Illustrations, from above: Wreck of the steam ship Arctic (lithograph by N. Currier); Martin Droeshout’s Shakespeare portrait (the second and final state of the engraving); Two actors in classic costume on stage at the John Street Theatre ca 1800 (New York Public Library); Frank Bellew cartoon depicting the Collins – Cunard rivalry from The Lantern, March 1852.