William Shakespeare (1564–1616), the English poet and playwright, needs little introduction. Regarded by many as the greatest writer in the English language, his plays have been translated into every major language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright. It is therefore not surprising that his work has been published in many editions through the years.
This is a look at the letterpress editions published by the Limited Editions Club as part of the Club’s Eleventh Series from 1939–1940, titled “The Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies of William Shakespeare.” The set was designed by Bruce Rogers, edited by Herbert Fargeon and illustrated by some of the very best illustrators of the day.
As Edward Larocque Tinker (1881–1968), the noted author and philanthropist, explains in his article “New Editions, Fine & Otherwise”:
The text was prepared by Herbert Fargeon (grandson of Joseph Jefferson), an English playwright and scholar. Believing that Shakespeare in modern language, as in modern costume, is an anachronistic horror, Mr. Faregeon was convinced that every sensitive reader would prefer the mounting style of the original text to the flatness of some of our renovated versions. For this reason he has “chosen to restore the old orthography, the old use of captial letters; the old expressive parentheses; and the old punctuation, which was a practical guide to the actors rather than a useless slave to grammarians and syntacticians.”
The work he did earlier on the Nonesuch edition of Shakespeare was of great help to him in accomplishing this, for he reproduced the First Folio text literatim, printed the variants that appeared in the quartos in margins and, where the text was obscure, added the most plausible emendations. This made it easy for him to incorporate in the present editions those corrections generally considered the most logical. His ambition was “to produce an Elizabethan or Jacobean text freed from these confusions – a text such as Shakespeare himself might have passed for the printer had he personally read the proofs of his plays before they went to the press.” In this he has been singularly successful.
The First Folio, as it has now become known, was both the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays and the first time that a prestigious folio format was dedicated entirely to plays. It was first published in 1623 with the title “Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies” and contained thirty-six of Shakespeare’s plays, with Pericles, Prince of Tyre and The Two Noble Kinsmen being absent.
It provided updated versions of eighteen plays that were previously published in quarto versions prior to 1623, but more importantly, it was the first time another eighteen had ever been published, as no manuscripts for these plays have ever been found. Plays appearing for the first time included Macbeth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and The Tempest. It is therefore not surprising that it is considered to be the most important work of English Literature ever published. By the last count, two hundred and twenty-eight copies still exist today out of an estimated seven hundred and fifty that were published.
The language used at the time is now referred to as Early Modern English, a version that is easily readable when compared to the current orthography of English. It includes charming little qualities like the long ‘s’; the use of ‘u’ and ‘v’, and ‘i’ and ‘j’, to represent different forms of the same letter; and the slient ‘e’ appended to the end of words. However, while editing the text for the Nonesuch Shakespeare, Fargeon amended the text of the First Folio to make it slightly more readable by, among other things, replacing the use of the long ‘s’ with the typical ‘s’ that we now use today and treating ‘u’ and ‘v,’ and ‘i’ and ‘j,’ as separate letters.
This is the version of the text that is used in the LEC Shakespeare, which comes as no surprise when one considers that George Macy was a member of the Board of Directors of the Nonesuch Press during the publication of the Nonesuch Shakespeare from 1929–1933, and by the time of the publication of the LEC Shakespeare had become the owner.
Carl Purington Rollins, in his article “The Compleat Collector”, describes the text as having “a slightly archaic flavor” and goes on to say that the “L.E.C. ‘Hamlet’ is not so much Hamlet in modern dress as Hamlet in costume of Shakespeare’s period streamlined by a modern tailor.” Well-said!
Although you might stumble a few times due to the archaic spellings, this version of the text is really a delight to read. By way of example, here’s a bit of sample text from the Limited Editions Club Hamlet, titled “The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke”:
ACTUS PRIMUS. SCAENA PRIMA.
Enter Barnardo and Francisco two Centinels.
Barnardo. Who’s there?
Fran. Nay answer me: Stand and unfold your selfe.
Bar. Long live the King.
Fran. You come most carefully upon your houre.
Bar. ’Tis now strook twelve, get thee to bed Franciso.
Fran. For this releefe much thankes: ’Til bitter cold,
And I am sicke at heart.
Bar. Have you had quiet Guard?
Fran. Not a Mouse stirring.
Bar. Well, goodnight.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The Rivals of my Watch, bid them make hast.
In the modernized language of the Oxford University Press Shakespeare edition, the play is titled “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” and begins:
Enter Franciso, a sentinel, who stands on guard
Enter Barnardo, to relieve him
BARNARDO Who’s there?
FRANCISO Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.
BARNARDO Long live the King!
FRANCISO You come most carefully upon your hour.
BARNARDO ’Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Franciso.
FRANCISO For this relief much thanks. ’Tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
BARNARDO Have you had quiet guard?
FRANCISO Not a mouse stirring.
BARNARDO Well, good night.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
So you can clearly see the difference in the language. The latter is what I grew up reading, so it’s been fun going through some of the LEC Shakespeare and enjoying it in a slightly different way. The archaic language also helps to transport you to that time and makes for an enchanting experience.
As anyone who appreciates good book design will attest, the design of the book itself also helps to enhance the reading experience, and this is without doubt true here. As Tinker further explains:
Bruce Rogers designed the format and chose for type an 18-point Anton Janson cut especially for this edition by the Lanston Monotype Company, for he felt this seventeenth-century font would be “bold and vigorous enough to convey to the reader’s eyes something of the rugged Elizabethan quality of the text.” The paper – sixty tons were necessary for the 82,000 volumes of the 1,950 sets – was made particularly for this edition by the Worthy Paper Company. Every detail bears the mark of Rogers’s infinite care and impeccable taste. Even the cover design shows his feeling for what is sentimentally appropriate. Learning that a lovely painted decoration, dating back to 1550, had been recently discovered under many layers of wallpaper in the old house in Oxford that belonged to John Davenant, where the Bard of Avon was wont to lie overnight on his annual journey to Warwickshire, Mr. Rogers obtained sketches of this mural and reproduced it on the cover. So, when one looks at the outside of one of the books, one probably sees the very design that Shakespeare himself saw when he woke up in his friend’s bedroom after a long night of words and wassail, for John Davenant was a vintner and kept only the best.
Each of the thirty-seven volumes is folio-sized (8–3/4″ x 13″), bound in gold-stamped half natural buckram with paper sides, gilded along the top edge and printed in four colors. The top-edge gilding is a fairly traditional method of presenting a book as the finish helps to protect the top of the book against dust and moisture.
The thirty-seven volumes were issued at $5 per volume, or at a discounted price of $166 for the set if paid in full in advance, which works out to about $82 and $2,750 respectively when adjusted for inflation as of 2012. They were published over the course of ten months, with four volumes issued in each of seven months and three volumes issued in each of the final three months, all-together forming the entire Eleventh Series of the Club.
Interestingly, the cost of producing the LEC Shakespeare exceeded expectations, so much so that Macy decided to extended the limitation beyond the originally planned 1500 that accounted for the members of the Club, to 1950. This allowed non-subscribers to purchase individual volumes at their own discretion.
Complete list of volumes and illustrators
The following is a list of all volumes in the LEC Shakespeare, along with information about the artist:
- All’s Well That Ends Well. Drawings in color by Richard Floethe (originally to be illustrated by Gunter Böhmer), printed in colors by A. Colish, 120 pages.
- Anthony and Cleopatra. Colored wood-engravings by Enric-Cristobal Ricart, pulled by R. & R. Clark and hand-colored by jean Saudé, 144 pages.
- As You Like It. Watercolors by Sylvain Sauvage, lithographed in three colors and hand-colored by Mourlot Frères, 112 pages.
- The Comedy of Errors. Colored wood-engravings by John Austen, printed in five colors by R. & R. Clark, 82 pages.
- Coriolanus. Tempera paintings by C. Pál Molnár, lithographed (using up to fifteen colors) by Mourlot Frères, 148 pages.
- Cymbeline. Lithographs by Yngve Berg, pulled by the Curwen Press, 148 pages.
- Hamlet. Dry-brush drawings by Edy Legrand, printed in collotype, black and gray, by Georges Duval, 158 pages.
- Henry the Fourth, Part I. Color lithographs by Barnett Freedman, pulled by the Curwen Press, 126 pages.
- Henry the Fourth, Part II. Water-colors by Edward Bawden, printed in collotype by Georges Duval and hand-colored by Jean Saudé, 132 pages.
- Henry the Fifth. Pencil drawings by Vera Willoughby, lithographed by Mourlot Frères, 130 pages.
- Henry the Sixth, Part I. Lithographs by Graham Sutherland, pulled by the Curwen Press, 118 pages.
- Henry the Sixth, Part II. Lithographs by Carlotta Petrina, pulled by George C. Miller, 130 pages.
- Henry the Sixth, Part III. Colored line drawings by Jean Charlot, printed in three colors by A. Colish, 124 pages.
- Henry the Eight. Wood-engravings by Eric Gill, pulled by R. & R. Clark, 136 pages.
- Julius Caesar. Wood-engravings by Frans Masereel, pulled by A. Colish, 110 pages.
- King John. Line drawings in three colors and gold by Valenti Angelo, printed by A. Colish, 110 pages.
- King Lear. Brush drawings by Boardman Robinson, printed in collotype in black and two grays by Georges Duval, 142 pages.
- Love’s Labour’s Lost. Crayon and wash drawings by Mariette Lydis, printed in collotype in black and gray by Georges Duval, 114 pages.
- Macbeth. Color drawings by Gordon Craig, lithographed by Mourlot Frères, 106 pages.
- Measure for Measure. Color lithographs by Hugo Steiner-Prag, pulled by Mourlot Frères, 118 pages.
- The Merchant of Venice. Water-colors by René ben Sussan, printed with two colors in collotype by Georges Duval, Paris, and three colors in lithography by Mourlot Frères and hand-colored by Maurice Beaufumé, 110 pages.
- The Merry Wives of Windsor. Color drawings by Gordon Ross, printed in collotype in black and sanguine by Georges Duval and hand-colored, 114 pages.
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Water-colors by Arthur Rackham, lithographed in four colors by Mourlot Frères and hand-colored by Maurice Beaufumé, 94 pages.
- Much Ado About Nothing. Water-colors by Fritz Kredel, printed in collotype by Georges Duval and hand-colored by Jean Saudé, 108 pages.
- Othello. Wood-engravings by Robert Gibbings, pulled by A. Colish, 140 pages.
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Wood-engravings by Stanislas Ostoja-Chrostowski, pulled by R. & R. Clark, 140 pages.
- Richard the Second. Wood-engravings by Agnes Miller Parker, pulled by A. Colish, 118 pages.
- Richard the Third. Lithographs by Fritz Eichenberg (originally to be illustrated by Edward Ardizzone), pulled by George C. Miller, 150 pages.
- Romeo and Juliet. Line drawings in color by Ervine Metzl (originally to be illustrated by Pierre Falke), printed in two colors by A. Colish, 126 pages.
- The Taming of the Shrew. Line drawings by W.A. Dwiggins (originally to be illustrated by Alexis Kravtchenko), printed in sanguine by A. Colish, 110 pages.
- The Tempest. Water-colors by Edward A. Wilson, printed in collotype (key black) by Georges Duval and in lithography (two basic colors) by Mourlot Frères and hand-colored by Maurice Beaufumé, 98 pages.
- Timon of Athens. Wood-engravings by George Buday (originally to be illustrated by E. McKnight Kauffer), pulled by A. Colish, 106 pages.
- Titus Andronicus. Water-colors by Nikolai Fyodorovitch Lapshin, lithographed by Mourlot Frères, 110 pages.
- Troilus and Cressida. Wood-engravings by Demetrius Galanis, pulled in black and terra-cotta by Dehon et Cie, 140 pages.
- Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Water-colors by Francesco Carnevali, lithographed by Mourlot Frères, 106 pages.
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Water-colors by Pierre Brissaud, printed in collotype (key gray) by Georges Duval and hand-colored, 98 pages.
- The Winter’s Tale. Drawings by Albert Rutherston, hand-colored, printed (key black) by the Curwen Press and hand-colored by Jean Saudé, 132 pages.
Planning and executing a project like this today would be an ambitious undertaking, even with conveniences like email communication and better shipping options that would really help to speed things along. That the Limited Editions Club was able to accomplish it back in 1939 is nothing short of astounding.
From the type selection to the letterpress printing, from the artist selection for each volume to the wallpaper reproduction on the cover, every aspect of this series shows a meticulous attention to detail and a great love for the craft of fine book-making. The only other Shakespeare project that I can think of that can compete with this one is the Letterpress Shakespeare by the Folio Society which is still ongoing.
It’s very difficult to find a complete set of these books in fine condition, as their spines have been very prone to darkening. I’ll be reviewing and shooting those volumes that I have in my possession over the coming days and linking the list above to each one as they’re published.
Macy couldn’t have said it any better than when he assured a young lady who had won a complete set of the books in a competition that:
“If you will set aside an evening to read those plays for sheer pleasure, especially in this unusual text, I guarantee that you will find it a greater pleasure than working, or drinking, or even necking.”
Much thanks to LibraryThing users Maretzo, starkimarki, parchment and especially Django6924, who has graciously shared many anecdotes about the Limited Editions Club with fellow members of the forum. This article would have been much barer and less interesting without the information they provided.
- Majure, Bill. “A Book & Print Collectors Guide & Complete Checklist of all Books Published by the Limited Editions Club: 1929–2008.” Bill R Majure Books & Art Homepage. http://www.majure.net/LECLISTOFTITLES.htm (accessed September 25, 2012).
- Newman, Ralph Geoffrey, and Glen Norman Wiche. Great and Good Books: A Bibliographical Catalogue of the Limited Editions Club, 1929–1985. Chicago, Ill.: R.G. Newman, 1989.
- Rollins, Carl Purington. “The Compleat Collector.” The Saturday Review, October 14, 1939.
- Tinker, Edward Larocque. “New Editions, Fine & Otherwise.” The New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1939.