Shakespeare’s Textual Bodies

Jennifer Edwards explores Shakespeare’s presentation of the relationship between body and text in light of the workings of the early modern printing press.

Body and text

Writing in a period when an expanding printing industry facilitated the availability of books, it is unsurprising that we find in Shakespeare’s works a considerable investment in the art and act of reading. Terms such as press, print, copy, bind and publish pepper his plays, as do numerous references to books themselves: take, for instance, the ‘book of Numbers’ in Henry V (1.2.98); the ‘Book of Riddles’ in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1.1.201–02); the ‘book of prayer’ in Richard III (3.7.98); and, perhaps most famously, Ovid’s Metamorphoses in key scenes in Titus Andronicus and later in Cymbeline. But what’s all the more fascinating about the presentations of these texts are the ways in which they interact with the body, and vice versa; with bodies presented as texts in need of deciphering, and texts that in their very fabric and construction recall the body, this was an enigmatic relationship that held a curious fascination for Shakespeare.

Quarto of Much Ado About Nothing, 1600

Quarto of Much Ado About Nothing, 1600

The first printed edition of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in the small, quarto format.

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms Public Domain

Bodies of text

Shakespeare’s corpus – the body of his work – survives in two printed forms: quarto (a small book in which each printed sheet was folded twice into four double-sided pages) and folio (a larger book where printed sheets were folded only once into two double-sided pages). Although many plays already existed in individual quarto form, the collected First Folio (published after Shakespeare’s death in November 1623) saw 18 plays printed for the first time, gathered into one volume by fellow members of the King’s Men John Hemmings and Henry Condell, and printed near London’s St Paul’s Cathedral by William Jaggard and his son, Isaac.

Quarto 1 of King Lear, 1608

Quarto 1 of King Lear, 1608

The first printed edition of Shakespeare’s King Lear in the small, quarto format.

View images from this item  (9)

Usage terms Public Domain

Every copy of the 1623 Folio that has been surveyed (234 survive today) contains recurring irregularities; each page (and accordingly each text) distinguishes itself from other copies. This individuality was largely due to the errors of the 17th-century print workers, the most obvious causes, as Matthew W Black has observed, owing to factors such as ‘bad light, bad eyesight, turned type, and type that dropped out of a badly locked form and were replaced improperly’.[1] Dropping out of forms, these types naturally became damaged, making the print of the letter typeface more and more difficult to read. This was just one consequence of the movable type used to print the Folio: typefaces which, having been used for some years, incurred further damage and, accordingly, bestowed each page with an individual imprint.

Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare's First Folio - title page and introduction by Ben Johnson

The first collected edition of the works of Shakespeare was printed in the larger and more prestigious folio format.

View images from this item  (12)

Usage terms Public Domain
Held by© British Library

But to look at the pages of these Folios even more closely is to discover that they display a more immediate connection with the human body than we might expect. As Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass have noted, mingled in the ink used to print these texts were ‘residual traces of urine of the print shop workers, who each night used urine to soak the balls that inked the press’.[2] What’s more, the pages themselves bear testament to their human, bodily origin; made from recycled fabrics (bed sheets, clothes and so on) that had been in contact with countless individuals, ‘absorbing the sweat, blood, dirt and grime of everyday life’,[3] early modern rag paper had its own genetic make-up. These texts therefore hold not only editorial, but also physical traces of their compositors: Shakespeare’s corpus is curiously corporeal.

Texts that have body

For Shakespeare, the printing press provided further ways to conflate body and text. Take, for instance, The Winter’s Tale, where early modern printing practice provides a metaphor that speaks to both a child’s legitimacy, and a wife’s honesty:

Behold my lords,
Although the print be little, the whole matter
And copy of the father – eye, nose, lip,
The trick of ’s frown, his forehead, nay, the valley,
The pretty dimples of his chin and cheek, his smiles,
The very mould and frame of hand, nail, finger. (2.3.98–103)

This idea of the child as a ‘copy’ of the father is repeated in the closing stages of the play, as Leontes recognises in Polixenes’s son what he could not see in his own children: ‘Your mother was most true to wedlock, prince, / For she did print your royal father off, / Conceiving you’ (5.1.124–26). While the significance of ‘print’ here speaks for itself, ‘royal’ perhaps serves to push this metaphor further, referring not only to Polixenes’s kingly status but also to the ‘royal’ sized paper (20 by 25 inches) upon which the Folios were printed.

Looking to the workings of the printing press itself, we discover that its metaphorical relationship with the body extends even further. Built with reproductive parts and processes, the printing press was constructed as a gendered device with ‘male’ and ‘female’ parts: ‘the mechanical counterparts of Galen’s sexual organs.’[4] As de Grazia has written, the letters of the press were themselves formed though the coupling of a sleek metal shank (a patrix) sinking into a soft piece of wood (a matrix), which was filled with molten metal. Pressed together, they produced a metal letter which, once removed from the mould, would then be ‘dressed’, as Joseph Moxon describes in The Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (1683–84):

The Letter Dresser … with the Balls of the Fingers of both his Hands … patts gently upon the Feet of the Letter, to press all their Faces down upon the Tongue, which having done … he rubs a little [leather] upon the Feet of the Letter to smoothen them.[5]

These pieces of type, the offspring of the ‘Male-Block’ and ‘Female-Block’ that formed them,[6] are remarkably humanoid, with print workers using a range of bodily terms to describe the minute features of the implements of their trade. As David Biron Thomas notes, each type had a ‘face’, a ‘beard’, a ‘neck’, as well as a ‘shoulder, back, belly, and feet’;[7] each piece of type, each character, has not only a face, but also a body of its own.

Bodies as text

This was a relationship that cut both ways. For behind the metaphorical conflation of Shakespeare’s characters and text lies the fact that characters are letters (OED ‘character’, 3.a: ‘a letter of an alphabet’). And so, just as the type of the printing press had legible ‘faces’, Shakespeare’s characters attempt to ‘read’ the faces and figures of others. Indeed, Macbeth’s ‘face is a book’, where ‘strange matters’ might be read (1.5.62–63). We find perhaps the most glaring instance of this in Romeo and Juliet, as Lady Capulet instructs her daughter to ‘Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,

And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen;
Examine every married lineament,
And see how one another lends content;
And what obscur’d in this fair volume lies
Find written in the margent of the eyes.
This precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him, only lacks a cover. (1.3.81–88)

‘Was ever book containing such vile matter / So fairly bound?’ (3.2.83–84): such elaborate book metaphors seem an early instance of the dangers of judging a book by its cover, of taking things at ‘face’ value. These are characters endlessly driven by the desire to locate text, a desire that turns them again and again to the body, only to discover that ‘to read / [a man] by his form’ (Twelfth Night, 3.4.264–65) is no straightforward endeavour. For what Shakespeare seems to suggest by bringing this enigmatic relationship into focus is that neither body nor text can be reduced to a reading quite so simply. But that is precisely what Shakespeare’s textual bodies celebrate; we must, like Achilles, learn from Troilus’s claim that ‘like a book … thou’lt read me o’er; / but there’s more in me than thou understand’st’ (Troilus and Cressida, 4.5.239–40).


[1] Matthew W Black, ‘Shakespeare’s Seventeenth Century Editors, 1632–1695’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 76:5 (1936), p. 709.

[2] Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass, ‘The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 44 (1993), 255–83 (pp. 281–82).

[3] John Miles, 'Shakespeare's Paratexts: Framing the First Folio' (PhD Thesis, University of London, 2010), p. 33; see also Charlton Hinman, The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963).

[4] Margreta de Grazia, ‘Imprints: Shakespeare, Gutenberg and Descartes’ in Alternative Shakespeares: Volume 2, ed. by Terence Hawkes (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 63–94 (p. 83).

[5] Joseph Moxon, The Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, ed. by Herbert Davis and Harry Carter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 184, 187.

[6] Ibid., p. 186.

[7] David Biron Thomas, Type for Print (London: Joseph Whitaker & Sons, 1936), p. 17.

The contributor has asked for the following credit: Jennifer Edwards, 'Shakespeare's Textual Bodies' (2016).

  • Jennifer Edwards
  • Jennifer Edwards is Research Coordinator at Shakespeare’s Globe, London. She is also a Visiting Lecturer and AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching the ecstatic experience in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.