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Shakespeare Forever: Keynote Lecture: Shakespeare, The First Folio and the Birth of Modern Literature

Shakespeare, The First Folio and the Birth of Modern Literature

Professor James P. Bednarz, Department of English

The publication of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, commonly known as the Shakespeare First Folio in 1623 was one of the most remarkable events in literary history. At a time in England when some intellectuals looked down on vernacular drama, it confirmed Shakespeare’s position as the central figure of the Western tradition and began a process that would make him the most famous and important writer in the world today. Because it is in this volume, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, that we find Ben Jonson extolling him as a writer who excelled even the ancients, and about whom Jonson ventured his prophetic words: “he was not of an age but for all time.” Publishing the First Folio was an epic task that required a unique collaboration between Shakespeare’s fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, as well as a syndicate of enterprising publishers, including the blind printer William Jaggard and his young son Issac, along with Edward Blount, one of the most discerning stationers. The circumstances that brought these divergent agents together and how they managed to produce this monumental volume from a variety of printed texts and playhouse manuscripts is a fascinating tale of counterfeit plays, multiple texts, and compositor error, as well as a sustained heroic effort to preserve play scripts from oblivion. Almost half of the plays attributed to Shakespeare today were first published in it. Shakespeare’s fame as a writer had been building steadily from the late 1590s, when his drama began to be reproduced in smaller quarto versions. The First Folio was consequently less of an unprecedented beginning than the culmination of a process that began earlier in Shakespeare’s career, when his name came to have value as a sign of genius. With its publication, modern literature had arrived.

James P. Bednarz (Bio)

Professor of English

B.A., Columbia University M.A., M.Phil, Ph.D., Columbia University


James P. Bednarz, professor of English, has received both of the highest honors that Long Island University bestows upon faculty members, the Trustees’ Award for Excellence in Scholarship and the David Newton Award for Excellence in Teaching. Born in New York City, where he currently lives, Professor Bednarz received a B.A. (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) from Columbia College, before going on to receive an M.A. with honors and a Ph. D. with distinction from the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He has served as a member of the advisory committee on Shakespeare for PMLA. His work focuses primarily on William Shakespeare and his contemporaries, especially Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Marston and John Donne. His study “Shakespeare and the Poets’ War” (Columbia University Press, 2001) was selected as an International Book of the Year by The Times Literary Supplement. There, Jonathan Bate praised it as a “state-of-the-art account of the pivotal ‘dialogic’ episode” in Shakespeare’s career, which “powerfully demonstrates how Ben Jonson’s arrival on the dramatic scene presented Shakespeare with his greatest challenge since the death of Marlowe.” Harold Bloom called it a book that “stands out from the onrush of current Shakespeare criticism as a rare instance of insight and love that makes a difference.” Patrick Cheney in Shakespeare Quarterly referred to it as the work of “a superb intertextual critic,” and W. B. Worthen in SEL noted its “imaginative and critical sophistication.” He has recently completed "Shakespeare and the Truth of Love," an examination of the political, religious and literary contexts that shaped Shakespeare's perspective as a dramatist and poet at the height of his career in 1601. "Once in a very long while you come across a book that utterly transforms your understanding of Shakespeare," writes James Shapiro, author of "1599" and "Contested Will." "This is one of those books." "Shakespeare and the Truth of Love," Hazel Wilkinson writes in her TLS review, "renders a great poem more intriguing and provocative than ever."


Shakespeare and the English Renaissance, Literary Criticism and Theory


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