Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In 1632, John Milton published his first poem in English. Long before Paradise Lost had even been conceived, an unsigned sixteen-line poem appeared in the front matter of Shakespeare’s Second Folio. Penned in 1630, the poem is commonly called “On Shakespeare.” Milton’s original title runs: “Epitaph on the admirable Dramatick Poet, W. Shakespeare.” The title’s significance is made plain in the opening lines:

What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones,
The labor of an age in pilèd stones, 
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid 
Under a star-ypointing pyramid?

This “epitaph” identifies the printed matter of the Second Folio as a tomb, the individual plays as hallowed relics. There need be no architectural undertakings, no monument in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner (though Shakespeare’s would be added in 1741) to commemorate our author, because “Thou in our wonder and astonishment / Hast built thyself a live-long monument.” He lives on in the minds and souls of his readers, not least of whom in 1630 was Milton.

Shakespeare not only lived in print—he was imprinted on Milton’s mind. Along with Virgil, he animates Paradise Lost. We discern in Milton’s Satan a dazzling transfiguration of Hamlet and Iago. The infernal debate of Book Two is, ultimately, prelude to a satanic soliloquy tuned by a sense of injured merit. In Milton’s poem we overhear the dialectic not only between the Rebel Angel and himself but also between the inimitable Milton and the admirable dramatic poet. But how did Milton come to possess Shakespeare, to claim him as “my Shakespeare,” as early as 1630? The answer is bound up in the publication of the First Folio in 1623.

In many ways, the First Folio made Shakespeare Shakespeare. The narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece had appeared in 1593 and 1594 to wide acclaim, and in 1609 the Sonnets further established Shakespeare’s reputation as a poet. But Milton’s epitaph speaks of a “Dramatick Poet”—a playwright. By and large, the plays had not been published during Shakespeare’s life. Had they been published, anyone could have staged them. Performances brought money, so it behooved the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to keep the plays to themselves.

Complete copies of plays were hard to come by, even for the actors who performed them. Paper was expensive, and pirating was rife, so actors received something more modest than a script. On a long, narrow cylindrical sheet—a roll, from the French rôle—each player received his lines only, framed by very few cue-words. Thus, the actor playing Hamlet would know little of Gertrude’s or Claudius’s lines or motives prior to rehearsal.

Even so, by the time Shakespeare died in 1616, some of his plays had been published in editions known as quartos—four pages folded to produce eight leaves, sixteen pages in all. Some of these plays seem authentic, printed perhaps to make money during times of plague when the theaters were closed. There are also “bad quartos,” pirated or constructed from actors’ memories of their individual rolls. Other quartos were falsely attributed to Shakespeare in order to monetize his reputation. It was an important event, then, when the authorized First Folio appeared seven years after Shakespeare’s death. This year marks the four-hundredth anniversary of its publication.

The Folio contains thirty-six plays, nineteen of which had appeared already in various quartos. It comprises multiple quires—sets of three sheets of folded paper, making six leaves, or twelve pages—sewn together. In addition to preserving seventeen of the Bard’s plays that would otherwise have been lost, the Folio often deviates from the quartos. The Folio’s King Lear contains some hundred-odd lines not included in the bad quarto of 1603, perhaps demonstrating a profound revision by Shakespeare. The differences among the various printings have bequeathed to editors the endless task of debating whether errata are mistakes, puns, or valid corrections. Sometimes, though, the case is simple, and the Folio plainly reveals the absurdity of a quarto. In the bad quarto, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy sounds more like the Duke and King’s botched soliloquies in Huckleberry Finn than the great Dane: “To be or not to be”—good so far—“aye, there’s the point, / To die, to sleep, is that all? Aye, all.”

Yet the Folio professes to have done more than just publish the plays. The front matter claims to do “an office to the dead,” one that aims “to keepe the memory of so worthy a Friend, & Fellow alive.” This language helps to contextualize Milton’s epitaph. To do an office is to perform a service or a kindness, but the phrase has liturgical undertones as well: An “office” is the authorized form of a church service, and the phrase “keepe the memory alive” echoes the Anglican language of consecration. In the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, the priest intones that Christ “did institute, and in his holy gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again.” Friends and colleagues were intent on resurrecting Shakespeare, dead seven years, in the Folio.

As the dedication proceeds, it continues to appropriate theological language. Because “the most, though meanest, of things are made more precious, when they are dedicated to Temples . . . we most humbly consecrate to your H.H. these remains of your servant Shakespeare.” To consecrate is to devote or dedicate, but the word also signifies the setting-apart of someone or something as sacred. Bishops and churches are consecrated, as are churchyards, where burials were held. Most importantly, during the consecration the eucharistic elements of bread and wine receive their sacramental nature, becoming “the spiritual food of the most precious body and blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ.”

The Folio, then, is where we partake of the resurrected Shakespeare. The poems affixed to the Folio make no less a claim. Leonard Digges’s “To the Memory of the Deceased Author, Master W. Shakespeare” claims that the plays resurrect the great poet in the reader—“ev’ry Line, each Verse / Here shall revive, redeeme thee from thy Herse”—before asserting, “Be sure, our Shakespeare, thou canst never dye, / But crown’d with Lauwrell, live eternally.” James Mabbe’s “To the Memorie of M. W. Shakespeare” depicts death and resurrection in theatrical fashion:

         An Actors Art,
Can dye, and live, to acte a second part.
That’s but an Exit of Mortalitie;
This, a Re-entrance to a Plaudite.

Finally, Ben Jonson’s “To the Memory of My Beloved”: 

My Shakespeare, rise! . . .
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.

Perhaps it’s obvious why Jonson’s and Milton’s poems have survived, whereas middle-schoolers are nowhere to be found reciting Digges or Mabbe. The Folio claims that Shakespeare’s living memory is in the plays, that he was resurrected by their publication, and that he lives on as long as we read him.

Which brings us back to Milton. Scholars have recently discovered that a copy of the First Folio in Philadelphia once belonged to Milton and contains his hand-written annotations. Though Milton could not foresee it in 1630, his reading of Shakespeare would bring him out of “darkness visible” and into glorious light, for the relationship between the living and the dead does not move in only one direction. Shakespeare quickens the readers who partake of his living memory. His effect is not wholly unlike the sacraments’. All readers of Shakespeare, whether the aspiring poet called Milton or a young boy or girl reading him for the first time, suffer a magnificent change.

This is what the young Milton knew. We become Shakespeare’s “live-long monument” as he continues to shape us, to craft not verse but our lives and souls. The First Folio has allowed him to do so for four hundred years. May it continue for four hundred more.

Nathan M. Antiel is an editor, author, and classical educator based in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by Martin Droeshout licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles