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A Conversation On Shakespeare with The Folio Society

A closer look at the production and inspiration behind Folio Society's newest limited edition, William Shakespeare: The Complete Plays, with Production Director Kate Grimwade.


Q: First of all, I just wanted to say thank you Kate for taking the time to talk with us about this wonderful upcoming production in the midst of your busy schedule and prep for the imminent release. In the last few decades, the Folio Society has come out with a few different standard sets of Shakespeare’s work, as well as the absolutely gorgeous letterpress Shakespeare collection. What does this new set of The Complete Plays bring that other versions may have not and what makes you excited about this particular production?


It's such a pleasure to be asked to contribute to the Collectible Book Vault, thank you for asking me! In terms of what excites me about this production, it's a combination of different things. The contemporary yet classic design, the stunning illustrations, the bespoke silk bindings and the fact that we have crafted this edition entirely in the UK.


Q: Commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s first folio is certainly a reason to celebrate. Published seven years after his death, it included eighteen plays that had never previously appeared in print. I think this obviously shows how important that folio was, as this solidified many new works into the Shakespeare canon that we know today. Are there any specific aspects from that original production that you have tried to incorporate or pay homage to in this edition?

The most obvious is the separation of the plays into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies – this led us to create our three volumes using those titles. However, some of the plays have, since 1623, been allocated differently and we have placed them according to the Arden canon, as that is the text we have employed. For example, Troilus and Cressida: once considered a tragedy it is now amongst the comedies. Furthermore, our edition adds two plays originally omitted from the First Folio – Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen. While paying homage to the First Folio, we really wanted ours to be a new edition and to represent the full canon of his plays.


Q: I would imagine this set has been in the development process for a very long time. When did the project first get thrown around as an idea and what were some of the moments where you really started to see it come together?


It had long been in our sights to celebrate the 400th anniversary in a very special way but the project began to take shape a couple of years ago, during a brainstorming meeting of Folio’s publisher Tom Walker, art director Raquel Leis Allion and the artist, Neil Packer. Chatting over dim sum in London’s Chinatown, the idea of using a blackwork embroidery design for the binding emerged. Raquel knew that blackwork embroidery had been brought from Spain by Catherine of Aragon and was used on the shirt cuffs, shirts and ruffles worn by Henry VIII, so the idea was a perfect match for the period.


Q: I was delighted to see that the foreword is being done by none other than Dame Judi Dench. She not only has a personal historical and family connection to Shakespeare performers, but obviously has performed in many productions herself. How was the decision to ask her, as well as Gregory Doran, made? What do you think each of these people brings that elevates this project even more?

Shakespeare can be read in so many ways and we wanted to represent that in our choice of introducers. The most obvious is the direct performance of the plays and who better to write about the way Shakespeare moves an actor than Dame Judi Dench – a performer steeped in the works of the Bard and who has so many key performances under her belt. Likewise, Greg Doran, Artistic Director Emeritus of the RSC, looks at Shakespeare in a different light. He is able to talk about the creation and influence not only of the plays but of the First Folio itself. They each bring to light a different facet of the texts and their undeniable legacy.


Q: You brought on Stephen Walters & Sons, one of the oldest silk-weaving companies in Britain, to create the design for the covering of the binding. The sewn covers of jacquard silk look stunning and tactile, with the design a beautiful fusion that seems elegantly classic and modern at the same time. How did the idea to use this blackwork embroidery technique arise and how has it met your expectations as you are actually starting to see the finished binding design?


Once the idea of using blackwork embroidery was decided on, I knew immediately where to achieve it. I worked with Stephen Walters in 2009, when they wove the cloth for the binding of Folio’s Fitzwilliam Book of Hours. I knew that they would be perfect as their values and Folio’s are so closely aligned, all of us committed to creating wonderful products of the highest quality for people passionate about beautiful things. It has been a totally delightful collaboration as Stephen Walters were completely invested in the project from the beginning. It has been fascinating to see them take a file of Neil’s artwork and digitally translate it into colourways and ultimately into woven cloth.

A lot of time was spent researching the weave, as while our priority was the beauty and quality of the cloth, it was also essential that it was strong and long-lasting and of course suitable for book-making. We settled upon a ‘honey weave’ of cream linen and black silk. It was an enormous pleasure to see the cloth being produced on the jacquard loom, to have seen the design taken from artwork through an industrial process to create 600 metres of gorgeous cloth.


Q: The previews of Neil Packer’s art that have been released are wonderful, paying homage and showing reverence to some of the classic elements of Shakespeare while also feeling distinctly modern. Is there a concerted effort with Folio Society productions to pair more modern techniques and illustrators to classic texts? I love the look of everything I have seen, but how did the decision to keep the art contained to a black-and-white style (with red accents) evolve when Neil’s work can often be quite vibrant and colorful?

Folio’s art directors are always searching for the perfect artist to illustrate a narrative and we are always excited when an artist has a modern and original take on a classic text, in the way Clive Hicks-Jenkins did for Beowulf. You are correct, Neil’s pallet is often colorful but for Shakespeare, Neil took inspiration from the playbills of the time, the woodblock-printed pamphlets and posters that were handed out to advertise plays. It was around the time of Shakespeare that red ink first came into production, and playbills started to use black and red. So that is the reason Neil used two colours for his extraordinarily intricate illustrations.

Q: As you are thinking about the interior for a new limited production for Folio Society, how do you think about the typeface being chosen? I’m sure that readability is at the forefront, but are there other aspects like the period the text was written in or other factors that contribute to this choice on a project with the historical significance of Shakespeare?


The choice of typeface for our edition of Shakespeare was greatly inspired by the typography of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although designed after Shakespeare’s First Folio, Caslon is one of the most distinctive British typefaces. It has seen many revivals over the years, some more faithful than others, and our edition uses a modern digitisation which combines readability with familiarity. This goes hand-in-hand with Neil Packer’s distressed display lettering, which was meticulously set to mimic the uneven typesetting and letterpress printing of the time, without being too distracting for the reader.


Q: Now that you have held the book in your hands and production is coming to a close, what do you think people will be most pleasantly surprised by with this edition?


Firstly, that through the choice of format and careful text design, we have created a beautiful but supremely readable edition, which has been bound with enormous skill and care by the dedicated team at Smith Settle. Each volume feels truly wonderful in the hand. The presentation box is also a thing of beauty and quality, equally carefully crafted by Ludlow Bookbinders. For me, Folio has created a contemporary classic, an heirloom to pass down the generations and I am confident that the lucky owners of this set will feel that we have honoured the legacy of the First Folio.

Q: Folio Society is based in London, with Shakespeare’s birthplace only a day trip outside the city and there are echoes of his legacy all around. However, Shakespeare remains relevant all around the world, even as we celebrate the 400th anniversary of that First Folio in 1623. He has been translated into every major language and even while the form and context grow more historically distant, there is a universal nature to his themes and stories. What is it about Shakespeare that allows his work to uniquely pierce through the veil of history so effectively, and continue to be read, as so many others fall prey to the relentless marching of time?


His lasting legacy is, as you say, down to his universal themes. Romance and tragedy, kingship and comedy haven’t really changed, and the difficulties and joys of each are the same now as they were then. Essentially, it all boils down to feelings and these are universal: the themes of love and jealousy, death and birth, ambition and power are as relevant now as ever. He is also incredibly approachable for readers, performers and audience – his characters can be cruel and pitiable, joyful and desperate at the same moment – and this resonates with us all.


Q: If you could sum up this production in one word or phrase, what would that be?


'Curious-good' - a Shakespearean term (albeit not from the plays) meaning ‘finely elaborate’ and ‘excellently wrought’. We think Shakespeare would approve of our ambition, the skill employed by all the artisans involved in its creation, and the respect we have shown to his work.


The Folio Society Limited Edition of William Shakespeare Complete Plays goes on sale on September 26th. Check out these videos and learn more about this milestone production here Folio Shakespeare:


Artist Neil Packer being interviewed: Video

Silk-Weaving: Video


This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth and we want to thank Kate Grimwade and the rest of the team at Folio Society for their generosity of time and thoughtful answers. If you want to keep up with the latest from Folio then you can check them out on their website to see some of their past and current productions. You can also follow them on Facebook or Instagram to stay up with all the incredible seasonal releases and limited editions.


Interview by: Zach Harney a contributor to the Collectible Book Vault


*Since there are often different spellings in American English and British English of the same words, we have chosen to adhere to the spelling of the person who is speaking rather than conform to one convention for the whole interview.




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Zach Harney
Zach Harney
Sep 23, 2023

Thank you everyone for entering, we really appreciate it! The winners of this broadside are:


@jefflafrenais

Shirley Steer


Congrats to the winners!

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Justin Nathan
Justin Nathan
Sep 23, 2023

Big fan of a lot of Folio Society’s work! I hope one day I can manage to snag their LE Divine Comedy. One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen.

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I love how easy Folio Society makes it to be a collector. You can collect a whole bookshelf of editions for the same cost as a single book from some other presses. Its nice having access to heirloom quality books at an entry cost level.

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The Folio release of Dune has been my favorite so far. Like it so much have both the standard and LE versions. Can't wait for the release of the next in the series, saw its coming out soon I believe.

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Great interview Zach, Kate and FS team! With each new Folio edition, I find myself most looking forward to the art.

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