The First Folio, for the First Time Since 1623

The Shakespeare First Folio is one of the iconic books in the cultural tradition of the West. Jonathan Bate explains why he is the first scholar for centuries to produce a proper edition of its text.

Shakespeare’s insights into the dynamics of power are such that his plays will always strike a resonance with the times. With each new turn of history, a new dimension of his work opens up before us. When George III went mad, King Lear was kept off the stage, by consent of the theatre managers – the story was just too close to the truth of the moment. During the Cold War, Lear again became Shakespeare’s hottest play, as its combination of starkness and absurdity answered to the mood of the age of ‘mutually assured destruction’, inspiring the Polish critic Jan Kott to com­pare it to Samuel Beckett’s Endgame in his book Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1961). This was also the era when both the Russian Grigori Kozintsev (1969) and the English Peter Brook (1971) made darkly brilliant film versions that simultaneously evoked the primitive world of the play and the aura of nuclear apocalypse that suffused the contemporary air.


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