Seven years after the death of Shakespeare, a small group of unexpected heroes with no money, resources, or experience come together to compile what would become Shakespeare's First Folio. This rapid fire and buoyant play tells the story of those who knew Shakespeare best as they fight to collect 37 of his plays into one volume against all odds. Their translation of words from the stage to the page would forever change theater and literature.
Our show opens with a poorly pirated rendition of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy.
Following the performance, Henry Condell, John Heminges, and Richard Burbage, sit drinking at the Globe Tap-house. The three members of the King’s Men theatre company are served by John’s daughter Alice Heminges while they discuss the awful performance of Hamlet they just witnessed. Offended that such a performance gets to bear the name Hamlet and is attributed to the name Shakespeare, they discuss what is lost in the piracy of plays. They muse about their accelerating age, the parts they’ve played, and the friends they’ve lost. It is at this moment that the boy who had been playing Hamlet enters the bar. Enraged by the lad’s apparent lack of respect for the work, Burbage confronts him as the boy attempts to perform lines from Hamlet for the bar-goers. Two barmen can be heard making fun of John as he begins to stutter. Alice reaches her boiling point, offering the men some choice words and the door,while Burbage, to prove his worthiness of Shakespeare’s true words, expertly recites selections of Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Caesar, Henry V, Richard II, Lear, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The scene causes the boy Hamlet and the barmen to exeunt in embarrassment.
transition from two
A town crier announces The Globe’s current productions: Hamlet, Volpone, and Twelfth Night.
John sits in the tap-room, conducting his managerial duties for the theatre as Henry rushes in, breathless… Burbage has died.
John, Henry, and Alice, alongside John’s wife Rebecca Heminges, Henry’s wife Elizabeth Condell, national poet laureate Ben Jonson, script editor Ralph Crane, stage manager Ed Knight, and the boy Hamlet can be seen laying roses in memoriam of Richard Burbage. While the women discuss their husbands’ devastation over Burbage’s passage, John, meant to speak on behalf of the King’s Men, is concerned with his stutter. He calls upon Henry to give the eulogy and be the voice of the living. Henry speaks fondly of Burbage and is followed at great length by poet laureate and Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson.
Burbage’s friends share a toast at the tap-house. In a drunken stupor, Ben reveals a fondness for Alice. The affection is not returned, and Alice is happy to gently humble Ben by comparing him to The Bard himself. An emotionalBen bids the group a drunken goodnight. Elizabeth and Rebecca speak excitedly of the lady poet Emilia Bassano Lanier, Will’s mistress. She has dared become a writer herself! As the wives too turn in for the night, Henry, John, and Alice sit in their sorrow as they come to the realization of just how much of Will’s work lived largely in Burbage’s mind. They decide to find Will’s remaining written works to collect in a book as a collection of the Bard’s plays to be published for the public. John and Henry disagree about the practicality and feasibility of this pursuit, but John agrees to consider the possibility.
In the back offices of the Globe Theatre, Henry and John loom as stage manager Ed Knight prepares for the day’s performances and Ralph Crane feverishly copies scripts. Henry and John’s search for copies of Will’s plays is not off to a great start. A fire in the Globe’s past, resulting from an ill-advised cannon during a production of Henry VIII, caused the incineration of all Will’s work kept there. Henry and John become discouraged when they discover that Ed only has copies of five of Will’s plays. They decide to search for the individual actors sides and use existing quartos (copies of the plays written from memory by other companies for their own use) to help complete some of what is missing. . Their goal is to preserve the works the way they were intended, as best they can to prevent the cheap copies used by other companies from being remembered through the ages. Although John remains skeptical, stating how unreasonable this endeavor is, Henry reminds him that nothing the King’s Men have ever done has been reasonable, and it must come down to preservation above all else. John agrees to go around and purchase whatever pirated Shakespeare plays he can find. While Henry prepares to perform one of the five completed plays they have, Henry IV.
transition from six
A town crier announces The Globe’s current productions: Othello, Henry IV, and Every Man in His Humor.
Alice, John, and Henry sit at the Globe Tap House, reviewing the materials they have gathered thus far. They’ve been able to locate less than half of the Bard’s plays, and they mourn the loss of the masterpieces they’ve been unable to find. Rebecca appears, having found some of John’s old acting sides. New pieces of the puzzle! Likewise, Elizabeth has found sides of Henry’s and has acquired copies of several of Burbage’s old roles… the plan begins to take shape! Rebecca and Elizabeth begin reciting pieces they’re fond of and it becomes evident that the group has more resources than they initially thought. Soon , Crane runs in and reveals an extensive personal collection of his favorite Shakespeare pieces, copies kept in secret. As the day’s savior, the group rewards Crane with a promotion to editor of the collected plays of William Shakespeare. At this moment, Ben Jonson enters the tap house, angry and in possession of an apparently new, unauthorized collection of Shakespeare, published before the King’s Men can get their hands on enough plays for their own collection. The culprit is William Jaggard, a long-time King’s Men printer. The group decides to alert the Lord Chamberlain of Jaggard’s illegal printing practices.
transition from seven
Rebecca can be seen selling fruits and nuts in the streets of London.
eight - a dual scene
In Henry and Elizabeth’s home, Henry announces that Ben was able to halt Jaggard’s printing because Jaggard did not have the publication rights. The King’s Men are now free to compile and publish Will’s book! Elizabeth is concerned about the book’s profitability, and Henry is more worried about the tribute of it all.
In John and Rebecca’s home, John is concerned he won’t be able to keep up with the trials and tribulations of publishing this book. He fears he’s letting down his friends with the impossibility of this task. Despite his financial and time concerns, Rebecca and Alice convince John to continue the journey towards publication.
John, Alice, and Henry are at the Globe Tap-house discussing their troubles finding a printer when the infamous William Jaggard enters with his son Isaac. Jaggard introduces himself, offering his services in printing a combination of the works collected by Henry and John with the plays Jaggard was just shut down for printing. The offer is received with uproarious anger by the two King’s Men. Jaggard continues to arrogantly remind the men that they have no rights to the Bard’s plays and that he has united with the men who do own the play’s rights and has the funds to publish the collection. Jaggard asks if the King’s Men are willing to join them, but the Jaggards leave without their answer. Isaac Jaggard returns moments later, revealing himself a fan of the Bard and ensuring the works will be in good hands with him. Will the King’s Men trust him?
ten - a triple scene
Alice runs through town frantically searching for her father, as a performance of Hamlet goes up at the Globe Theatre. Simultaneously, John and Henry meet with the Shakespeare syndicate of publishers to make a deal regarding the collection's publication. Act one ends with John and Henry questioning the motives of the syndicate when a frantic Alice finds them in the street..
Rebecca is bedridden, and John feels as though he can’t work on the book with his wife in this condition. They discuss how they soldiered on when they had lost children. John confides how he took solace at the Globe during his worst days, channeling his feelings into Will’s words.. But Rebecca is gone, she was never there, and John stands in the Globe, not his home. Henry joins him and tries to comfort his friend through this loss. John contemplates why the stories and dramas should matter when life without Rebecca has so little meaning. But the play’s the thing, isn’t it? It is the thing that keeps these men going. Alice joins them, embracing John. She also didn’t know where else to go.
transition from one
A new fruit seller emerges in the streets of London, taking Rebecca’s place.
Henry, Elizabeth, Ralph Crane, and Isaac Jaggard gather at the Globe Tap-house where they edit the book. The group discusses which versions of the works should be included in the collection and if this collaboration may overshadow Shakespeare’s original vision. John and Alice enter and the group offer their condolences. As they resume their work on the collection, they determine the King’s Men are set to have their completed folio within the year. Crane’s copied plays, several rescued first drafts, a promptbook, an original manuscript, and the gathered non-sanctioned quartos help to secure thirty-five plays in all.
transition from two
Those gathered at the tap-house continue to feverishly work on editing the plays.
John and Henry enter the Jaggards’ print shop where printing of the collection is underway. Marcus, the head compositor, warns the men about touching the freshly inked pages. William and Isaac Jaggard enter, announcing that the project must be put on hold. Unfortunately, the cost is simply too high. As a last-ditch effort to save the project, John decides to turn to Ben Jonson to drum up publicity for the folio, while Henry chooses to turn to “the dark lady” for additional financing.
four - a dual scene
John and Henry wait for their respective saviors. Ben cautiously welcomes John and "the dark lady" reveals herself. She is Emilia Bassano Lanier, the late Bard's mistress. Henry asks for her help in preserving Shakespeare's memory. Emilia agrees to aid in funding the project in reverence and fondness for Will. Across town, Ben is upset that Jaggard is the publisher, but after some persuasion from John, he agrees to pen the collection's preface.
transition from four
The print shop resumes its work.
As Marcus and another compositor verbally tear apart a portrait of Will meant to be in the book, Isaac and William Jaggard rush into the shop. They demand that printing be stopped! They have been unable to obtain the rights for Troilus and Cressida. Once again, Jaggard is attempting to publish works without owning the rights. Isaac decides to replace the play with Timon of Athens as a compromise so they can resume printing and informs his father that once he is fully in charge, he will not run the shop as his father did.
At the Globe Tap-house, Alice reads John and Henry’s dedication … she approves! Ben Jonson enters, drunk and crying. He has just finished reading all of Shakespeare’s works to inspire his writing of the preface. Ben has discovered a new appreciation for the Bard, and feels responsible for Will’s death, having been drinking with him the night before he died., In light of all this,Ben has gone ahead and penned a beautiful preface for the collection. Isaac Jaggard enters, crestfallen - in the end, they were able to get Troilus published in the folio afterall for the small cost of the book’s dedication to the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery. Isaac also reveals that his father has passed away in the night.
John, Henry, and Crane supervise the printers in completing the folio.. Isaac shows off the newest portrait of Shakespeare as Alice tosses him an apple, their fondness for one another quite evident. More printed pages begin to come together! As the collaborators assemble, the presses settle, and the book is finished. John and Henry determine that Will’s widow, Anne Hathaway Shakespeare, must see the book, and they depart for Stratford-upon-Avon. Sir Edward Dering enters the print shop, having just attended a performance of a Shakespeare play. He orders two copies of the new folio collection. Isaac and Crane are overjoyed by this first sale.
transition from seven
A town crier announces this week’s productions at The Globe: King Lear, King John, and Much Ado About Nothing.
John and Henry arrive at Shakespeare’s home to deliver the completed book to his widow, Anne.. She is physically aided by her daughter Susannah as the King’s Men present them with the collection. The two women open the book and are taken aback by Will’s image at the front. Anne asksHenry, John, and Susannah to read Will’s works aloud for her. Plays are meant to be performed, after all.
In the light of Shakespeare’s creative genius, the words shine through the ages.
* Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States
** Represented by United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829 of the IATSE
°Stage Directors and Choreographers Society
Get to know the characters in The Book of Will!
Thank you to our amazing intern Kylie for creating this animated guide to The Book of Will!
"While the concept of the story may, at first glance, seem familiar, the latest Lyric Stage production of "The Book of Will" is, quills down, one of the most gratifying and funniest plays to hit Boston this year."
"Gunderson has nonetheless performed a service to cultural memory. Life without Shakespeare's works is unimaginable, and she reminds us that we came within an eyelash-and some enterprising actors-of losing them."
"Under the direction of Courtney O’Connor, the cast, wonderfully cohesive and clearly enjoying themselves, successfully brings the characters and story to life on an appropriately minimal set. The range of emotions ensues as the story unfolds, thanks to the wonderful performances of all the actors."
"Lest you think this is a play reserved for Shakespeare nerds, think again. Gunderson has infused the script with humor, poetry, pathos and intrigue — ingredients for entertaining theater — as well as factual history."
"Thanks to playwright Lauren Gunderson’s ingenious invention, implausible, not to say distasteful, characters appear with entirely plausible motives for helping not only Shakespeare’s actor friends but, richly, themselves into the ‘gold’ and fame of this rare bargain."
Grace Experience*, Ed Hoopman*, Joshua Wolf Coleman*, Fred Sullivan Jr.* Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Lewis D. Wheeler*, Scot Colford, Hector Toledo Jr,
Will McGarrahan*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Ed Hoopman*, Shani Farrell, Joshua Wolf Coleman*, Grace Experience*, Lewis D. Wheeler*, Scot Colford. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Grace Experience*, Ed Hoopman*, Joshua Wolf Coleman*,
Fred Sullivan Jr.*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Sarah Newhouse* Ed Hoopman*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Ed Hoopman*, Joshua Wolf Coleman*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Joshua Wolf Coleman*, Sarah Newhouse*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Ed Hoopman*, Lewis D. Wheeler*, Joshua Wolf Coleman*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Fred Sullivan Jr.*, Scot Colford, Shani Farrell, Grace Experience*, Ed Hoopman*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Joshua Wolf Coleman*, Ed Hoopman*, Scot Colford. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Grace Experience*, Sarah Newhouse*, Shani Farrell. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Sarah Newhouse*, Joshua Wolf Coleman*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Ed Hoopman*, Lewis D. Wheeler*, Joshua Wolf Coleman*, Scot Colford. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Ed Hoopman*, Will McGarrahan*, Grace Experience*, Joshua Wolf Coleman*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Shani Farrell, Grace Experience*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Joshua Wolf Coleman*, Will McGarrahan*, Grace Experience*, Fred Sullivan Jr.*. Scot Colford, Hector Toledo Jr. Photo by Mark S. Howard.