The Book of Will: An imagined backstory for the Shakespeare First Folio

The Book of Will, a new play by Lauren Gunderson, explores the back-story of how Shakespeare’s friends assembled his plays into the book we know today as the First Folio, without which we might have forever lost plays such as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Twelfth Night.

Commissioned by and originally produced at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and developed at the Colorado New Play Summit, the play is onstage at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival Jun 9-Jul 28, directed by Davis McCallum.

The Book of Will
The Book of Will at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, 2017. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The play is populated with Shakespeare’s two friends and fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, but also their wives and a daughter, as well as Shakespeare’s scribe Ralph Crane and the shady publisher William Jaggard. Richard Burbarge and Ben Jonson both make an appearance, and (spoiler alert!) Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, shows up at the end.

The Book of Will
David Ryan Smith in The Book of Will at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, 2017. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Folger hosted a staged reading of The Book of Will in January and recorded a conversation with Gunderson for the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast.

Here’s a short excerpt from that interview:

NEVA GRANT: The story of how the First Folio got published is a really interesting one, right? But how did you know, and when did you know, that it would make a good play?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: That is a fabulous question because great research doesn’t always translate into a great play. And what occurred to me was this gobsmacking moment of realization that half the plays would have been gone had the Folio not collected them and published them. And some of them happened to be some of my favorite plays. And that to me felt full of stakes, which of course a good play needs. And then you look at the characters that are populating this world of 1619 to 1623 which is when my play is set. And of course you have John Heminges and Henry Condell and you have Richard Burbage and Ben Johnson. And I posit that the women that accompanied these men, their wives, and daughters, and friends, were just as interesting as they were. So then now we have twice as many fabulous and interesting people. So that starts to make a good play. And then the real heart of it was when I realized that this can be one big metaphor for loss and legacy. Doing something when we don’t actually know what will become of this venture, this effort. But if you believe in it and you believe not just in the effort itself but they believed in the power of story and poetry. And of course their work has journeyed across centuries to us right now, which I think would delight and surprise them. But also part of them probably would’ve known: “Yeah, these plays were that good and we did a good thing in doing it.” So all of that made for the ingredients for I think a really captivating beginning to a story.

Listen to the full podcast episode on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, or NPR One.

⇒ Related: Shakespeare’s First Folio: The playlist

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival is a theater partner of the Folger Shakespeare Library.