Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2007
Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe: And if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him. And so we leaue you to other of his Friends, whom if you need, can bee your guides: if you neede them not, you can leade your selues, and others. And such Readers we wish him.
In the Preface to the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio, John Heminge and Henry Condell urge repeated, even guided reading of an often obscure playwright. Their salute to Shakespeare as ’so worthy a Friend‚ in the epistle to the Herbert brothers reechoes midway in the ensuing address ’To the great Variety of Readers‚: ’we pray you do not envie his Friends, the office of their care, and paine‚. Then the circle of friends expands mysteriously. In the passage cited above, Shakespeare’s former colleagues conclude the preliminaries by referring readers to ’other of his Friends‚ who can supply guidance, unless ’you neede them not [and] can leade your selues, and others‚. Who are these other friends into whose tutelage Heminge and Condell discharge the less capable reader? Recent attention to the matter has produced only halting commentary.
Supporting a tentative proposal by Heidi Brayman Hackel (which she then backs away from), this article proceeds from the inference that Shakespeare‚s first editors imagined a community of readers helping each other to understand – the same community envisioned in the Address‚s first sentence, stretching ’from the most able, to him that can but spell‚. The editors’ fantasy of a reading group centred on the Folio has its basis in a familiar early modern practice. Though Heminge and Condell (or the syndicate to which they lend their names) stop short of presenting Shakespeare’s oeuvre as a sacred text, they insinuate an analogy between the interpretive enterprise swirling around their friend’s big book and the scene taking place in myriad Protestant households where families, gathered round the Bible, help each other to drink the milk of the pure word.