The Folio Society: Celebrating 400 years of William Shakespeare

BY Annie Dabb

26th Sep 2023 Culture

8 min read

The Folio Society: Celebrating 400 years of William Shakespeare
To mark the 400th anniversary of the registration of William Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623, The Folio Society have crafted 1,000 landmark limited editions of Shakespeare’s The Complete Plays, each hand-numbered and signed by the charming artist and illustrator, Neil Packer
Featuring an introduction and foreward by Dame Judi Dench and Gregory Doran, each copy has been meticulously hand-crafted by passionate, artisan bookmakers, using techniques established in Shakespeare’s lifetime and bound in 16th century blackwork embroidery by Stephen Walters & Sons.
The set will be published in three volumes: comedies; histories; tragedies and contain 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, including two previously omitted works, Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen.
I spoke to Tom Walker, the publishing director of The Folio Society about the history of The Folio Society, the art of bookmaking, and of course, the inherent importance of Shakespeare to our literary history.

What is the Folio Society? 

Measure for Measure illustration by Neil Packer
Tom describes The Folio Society as “a publisher of a huge range of books from Shakespeare to children’s classics to science-fiction and fantasy and non-fiction…” He trails off, taking breath only for a millisecond before explaining that “the thing that holds it together is that we aim to publish the best available versions of all those books, whether it’s Shakespeare or Stephen King, or Herodotus.”
"We aim to publish the best available versions of all those books, whether it’s Shakespeare or Stephen King, or Herodotus"
It’s very brain stretching in those meetings” he admits, laughing.
In terms of the history of Folio up to now, and the place the company occupies in the world of literature, Tom explains that they are “in that affordable luxury fine edition space”, having just celebrated their 75th anniversary last year.
“There is an amazing heritage here. We’ve worked with 2,500 illustrators over the years, from Quentin Blake to Paula Rego.”
In the last few years, Folio has also followed a similar trajectory to the British library, transitioning from a members only book club with a UK focus, to more of an open community, appealing to a largely US based customer demographic.
The Folio Society currently has over 300,000 followers on socials, who Tom tells me earnestly, “influence their design and publishing choices as much as the people in the business do”. This enables them to publish the classics in a more contemporary way, updating and modernising works like Beowulf for example, which Tom describes excitedly as “just so cool”, telling me I must see it to see how they’ve transformed it.
Despite having, like any other English Literature student with even half an undergraduate degree, battled through the 9th century classic years ago and fared only slightly better than Grendel’s mother, Tom’s passion for Beowulf’s rich literary value is infectious, and I find myself genuinely intrigued by this renewed approach towards an old English text I had otherwise vowed never to go near again.
“We try to bring that contemporary artistic edge to something that is classic to make you want to read it again. It brings these classic books into the modern age and says this is important to now, not just the 800s.
That’s the context for what we’re trying to do for Shakespeare as well. To bring Shakespeare to the contemporary bookshelf and make the most up-to-date edition of Shakespeare for now.

Why Shakespeare and why now?

William Shakespeare: The Comedies, The Tragedies and Romances, and The Histories
As well as their conscious evolution to appeal to a larger audience, Tom also explains that inherent to the ethos of Folio, is “this pull, partly because of our heritage and partly because of people who are interested in beautiful books, beautiful books, gorgeous, artisanal bindings and beautiful illustration.
There are bookish people and Shakespeare is at the heart of that. Shakespeare is at the heart of almost anyone who loves books. The heart of their reading goes back to their experience with Shakespeare. That crack of understanding where you’re reading Shakespeare and you think it’s boring and suddenly you realise, ‘Oh, he understands everything about human nature’”.
Tom explains that “Folio publishes about 50 books a year, which are standard edition, illustrated gorgeous binding etc. And then six times a year, we release limited editions”, like this collection of Shakespeare’s complete plays, hence the hefty £1,000 price tag.
"All great books are inexhaustible"
“People like Folio because it’s a list curated for a curious reader. There is a sheer joy in a tangible, well-designed book”, he asserts. “To quote John Banville, ‘All great books are inexhaustible’”.

As the publishing director of The Folio Society, what is your main job role?

King Lear illustration by Neil Packer
“It’s a really fun role and it’s a massive privilege because you’re faced with all this history and all this heritage and you have to find a way not to be swamped by that. To use it and modernise it and make it relevant.
The main job is to make sure Folio stays relevant and remains important for people who love the physical incarnations of their favourite books.”
"The main job is to make sure Folio stays relevant for people who love the physical incarnations of their favourite books"
“Rights, editorial, translations, project managing, commissioning introductions”. Tom lists just a few of the aspects of his job role in much the same way as he’d offered the names of just a few of the many authors who’s classic works have been reimagined by Folio in the past 75 years.
For this limited-edition collection of Shakespeare’s plays in particular, Dame Judie Dench and Gregory Doran have lent their words to the edition’s introductions, contextualising the classic works through their roles at the Globe Theatre as actor and Artistic Director respectively.
“In general, we’re going through a golden age of book design. Folio is trying to spearhead that. I get so excited going into a bookshop now from a design and aesthetic perspective, in a way I just don’t think was there 10 or 20 years ago.
Now you go in and I feel constantly wowed by the innovation that goes on in children’s books and cookery books and the amazing stuff that’s happening with covers. Publishers in general are pushing the boundaries and I think Folio can just take that to another level.”

Can you explain a bit about the process of making this specific edition? 

William Shakespeare's The Complete Plays by The Folio Society
“Well,” he sighs. “It’s publishing Shakespeare. If you’re going to get anything right, it has to be this’.
He remembers aloud the limited edition of Dante’s The Divine Comedy that Folio published during lockdown a few years ago, using words like “complicated” and “nightmare” to describe the book sleeve manufactured in Italy during a global pandemic, complete with authentic Italian leather binding and book-sleeve drawers.
By contrast, he tells me that they wanted to “strip Shakespeare back to stately simplicity”.
“The materials and people working on it are the best of the best but the actual design is very traditional bookmaking. Because of the elegant simplicity we’ve been talking about all the way through, that’s allowed us to focus us on the materials, like the jacquard cloth and the Edwardian blackwork embroidery. The book themselves are bound by Smith Settle weavers in Suffolk.

What is your favourite Shakespeare play? 

The Merry Wives of Windsor illustration by Neil Packer.
He ponders for only a moment, before admitting, “Twelfth Night”, as if Shakespeare, despite being perhaps the most read playwright in the world, is still somewhat of a guilty pleasure for whom Tom would describe as the really “bookish people”.
 “It is at once, complex and dark and funny. It’s got cruelty and love and sadness and amazing characters and it’s all about gender fluidity and it’s super current”, he explains, delivering this praise almost as a torrent, as if we’ll run out of time and there’ll still be more to say about Twelfth Night and indeed, Shakespeare in general.
As the one minute warning pops up on the Zoom window, signalling that our meeting is coming to a close, I realise that this is what Tom has been trying to say all along, that of course we’ll run out of time. There will, after all, always be more to say about Shakespeare.
Banner: Shakespeare's engraving from the first folio (1623). Credit: claudiodivizia
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