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The Play of Pericles Prince of Tyre, by William Shakespeare, Barbarian Press (2009)

{Ed. Note: This is a reprint of an article published in September 2011, though updated with new photographs. This edition remains one of my favorite all-time fine press works. You really have to see it and feel it to understand the height it reaches! It is a tactile tour-de-force.}

Barbarian Press’s publication of William Shakespeare‘s The Play of Pericles Prince of Tyre, is one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by a private press in a long, long time. Published in 2010 by Crispin and Jan Elsted of Barbarian Press, this edition sets the bar on what private, fine press producers are capable of accomplishing.  Their Pericles is truly a remarkable accomplishment in the craft of book design and execution.  Every tiny detail has been thought out and meticulously cared for, resulting in a final product that is as close to perfection as one could hope to achieve. You really have to feel the book and the pages, running your fingers across the type and woodcuts, to let the artistry soak in. Simply put, this edition is a visual, tactile and intellectual treat. The illustrations by Simon Brett (over 100 of them, all printed directly from the wood) are as good as any I have ever seen for a work of Shakespeare, in fact better. How they are placed on the page within the text is astoundingly good. The hand-set type (Poliphilus & Blado with Duensing Titling) on mouldmade Zerkall paper is perfect. Elements of the text are printed in calligraphy specially designed and executed for this edition by Andrea Taylor, making it stunning and unique. Yes, superlatives galore. I love this book!

From their website we learn that Barbarian Press was established in 1977, with their shop being in Mission, British Columbia.  They are an entirely letterpress operation. Their nine presses include three 19th century handpresses – a super royal Albion (1850), a foolscap folio Barrett Albion (1833), and a foolscap folio Sherwin & Cope Imperial (1854) – two Chandler & Price vertical platens, a Vandercook Universal One horizontal cylinder proof press, a Kelly B horizontal cylinder press, and two Adana 8 by 5 tabletop presses. The range of typefaces at the press includes Bembo, Joanna, Van Dijck, Poliphilus & Blado, and Cancelleresca Bastarda – along with a good variety of titling and display faces and ornaments. They also have their own small hand bindery.  The press’s publications range from new translations of poetry and prose, Victorian melodrama, and new poetry to bibliography, illustrated classics, typography, and books on wood engraving.

Readers of Books and Vines know that I often criticize what I call “art for art’s sake”. Hence the smile that came to my face when I read on the Barbarian Press website that:

…our backgrounds are in literary studies and writing rather than graphic and studio arts, and we make our books to be read, not merely looked at. We feel that nothing should come between the text and the reader, and it is our view that typography should have, in Robert Bringhurst’s phrase, ‘a statuesque transparency’: like good film music, the best typography is effective to the degree that it is unobtrusive, supporting, not supplanting, the principal experience of the reader. Private press printing is a craft, not an art. The design and making of beautiful books is only secondarily a matter of self-expression; its first excellence is to serve the author and the reader.

Pericles was not in the first folio of 1623, instead appearing in the second printing of the third folio in 1668, 52 years after Shakespeare’s death.  The only published text of Pericles, the 1609 quarto, is universally described as a mess. As Mr. Elsted states, “both as a printing job and as an edition of a text, it is an unholy mess: verse is set as prose; words, lines, and (it seems) whole sections of scenes are omitted; speeches are attributed to the wrong characters, and so on. Moreover, it is clear from the physical evidence that the book was set in type by three different compositors, probably in two different shops, and that it was set not from the foul papers (Shakespeare’s own copy) but from a “reported” copy, possibly cobbled together by a group of the actors who took parts in the performances.”  For this edition, Mr. Elsted edits with an intention to produce an edition meant for readers rather than for performers or academics.

The authorship of Pericles has always been controversial, mostly surrounding whether this was a collaboration with Shakespeare only writing part of the play.  Mr. Elsted’s addresses this mystery in some detail, all of it interesting, in a companion volume which also has an essay by the illustrator Simon Brett on the making of this edition.  The companion volume also has extensive notes and glosses on the text.

For most of the 400+ years since Pericles was written, it has been one of Shakespeare’s least critically appreciated works.  None-the-less, from its inception, it was one of the most popular with the masses.  As Mr. Elsted states, “actors and audiences love it. With attempted murder, incest, pirates, a goddess, storms at sea, miraculous resurrection, shipwreck, love, loss, reconciliation, brothels, jousts, and palaces, it can hardly be said to be without incident or interest. Finally, it contains, in the reconciliation scene with Marina, what many consider the single most moving scene in all of Shakespeare.”  With this fantastic new edition, I look forward to re-reading Pericles, this time experiencing it, losing myself in this beautiful volume.

One last note concerning Mr. Elsted.  We have had a number of email communications in which he has always been kind, helpful and willing to answer many questions.  In these conversations he has displayed a wealth of knowledge on a number of topics, making it a real treat to interact with him. Be it literature, classical music, opera, wine or single malt whisky(!), Mr. Elsted shows himself more than a Renaissance man! Now that I have subscribed to Barbarian Press, I look forward to many more great works from the Elsted’s.

{Ed Note 9/19/2011; please also see the excellent review of this edition at Whole Book Experience}.

About the Edition


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Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Chemise and Slipcase
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Spines and Covers of Main Volume and Companion Volume
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Cover
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Title Page
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Macro of Title Page
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #1
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Macro of Text
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #2
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Macro of Text
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #5 with Text
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #6 with Text
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Title Page and Frontispiece of Companion Volume
Pericles Prince of Tyre, Barbarian Press, Colophon
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