Resetting Shakespeare

By Jack Lyon, the Editorium

In late 2020, I discovered the down-to-the-character transcription of Shakespeare's First Folio created by I knew immediately what I had to do: Reset the type in a new edition of the book—something that's never been done since the 1600s. With the encouragement and advice of Ron Severdia, founder and editor-in-chief of, I downloaded the files and began preparing them for typesetting.

I soon realized that this project would be much harder than I originally thought. The Microsoft Word documents available from had no formatting at all—just plain old text. Immaculately coded XML files were also available, but the proprietary files needed to transform them into formatted text were not. Ultimately, I downloaded the nicely formatted HTML versions of the individual plays, but making them match the layout of the original still required much wildcard manipulation and styling in Word.

I briefly considered typesetting the pages in Word itself, but I've learned from long experience that Word will fight you every step of the way in long, complex projects like this one. Even Adobe InDesign wasn't as cooperative as I'd hoped. Finally, I went with Affinity Publisher, which still has a few bugs but did exactly what I needed. You can download a sample of the finished pages here.

What made this interesting to me as an editor was seeing the editorial and typographical style used by the compositors of the book in Shakespeare's era. Here are just a few examples:

  • The first letter (and only the first letter) after a drop cap is capitalized. Modern practice is to set the rest of the word (and probably a couple of the following words) in small caps.
  • The typographical weight of important words doesn't seem to matter much. For example, there's "THE TRAGEDIE OF Othello, the Moor of Venice." Modern practice might be to set the title as "The Tragedie of OTHELLO, the Moor of Venice."
  • Page numbers start again at 1 for each section of the book: "Comedies" starts on page 1. "Histories" starts again on page 1. Finally, "Tragedies" starts on a new page 1. Modern practice is to use continuous page numbers throughout the book.
  • Running heads vary in typography and layout, and they may or may not match the title of the play. This may be because certain type styles in certain sizes were limited (metal type, remember), so if typesetters ran out of one style, they'd simply use another, even within the same play.
  • Modern practice is to be consistent in formatting; if one subheading is set in 10-point Helvetica, all subheads should be set in 10-point Helvetica. Not so in the First Folio. If you look through the original front matter, you'll see some regular text in 14 points, other regular text in 10.5 points. Poetry is all over the place, some almost too small to read. Once we get into the plays themselves, formatting is more regular, so perhaps the front matter was thought of as display type.
  • The letters I and J, along with U and V, are usually interchangable: "Ben Ionson." "If Musicke be the food of Loue, play on."
  • Abbreviations abound, not just to indicate the name of a player but also to fit words into a line that's too long for the measure. For example, "them" might be set as "thē"; "thou" is sometimes abbreviated as "ÿ."
  • Other lines that are too long are set with the final words above or below the rest of the line, following an opening parenthesis.
  • Ligatures are plentiful, evidently just to look fancy.
  • Dashes are long and extra dark.
  • Spelling and capitalization vary, probably depending on who is setting type at the time. For example, sometimes we have "Scena Secunda," at other times "Scœna secunda." And what's with all that Latin?
  • Sometimes nouns are capitalized for no apparent reason: "That our Garments being (as they were) drencht in the Sea." I wonder if this might be a cue to the actor about how to speak the line.
  • Colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation marks are usually preceded by a space. Other punctuation is not.
  • Apostrophes are used to mark words that should be spoken as one syllable rather than two: "Fetch me that flow’r."

I'm sure I've missed some things, but I seem to have misplaced my copy of The Jacobean Manual of Style. I wonder if William and Isaac Jaggard (who printed the First Folio) had such a thing. If they did, they didn't hesitate to depart from it when circumstances demanded it. In that, we moderns may not be so different.

If you're interested in buying a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio Ultimate, you can do so at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other purveyors of fine literature.

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