The Shakespeare Thefts, in Search of the First Folios is a little bit hyped but I could forgive that. Eric Rasmussen’s tale of hunting for extant copies of the first collection of all the Bard’s theatrical works in one volume is pretty interesting. I’m nerdy about things like that so I was predisposed to like it, in any case. Rasmussen is a noted Shakespeare scholar and he and a few colleagues set out to track every remaining First Folio and exhaustively catalog it so future identification would be simple. The quest was not simple and, after ten years, it’s not over.
232 copies of the original 750 are known to exist. Some are carefully archived in libraries and museums, some are in private collections, some are mysteriously missing but rumors swirl about where they might be and how they came to be there. The folio was compiled by actors from Shakespeare’s company after his death and it wasn’t printed until 1623. So the books are now nearly 400 years old and their journeys are high drama, occasionally more theatrical, comic and bloody than the plays. A number of the leather-covered volumes are in Japan, a few jealously guarded and inaccessible. Several are in university libraries. A few more are missing after being filched. Others may have been destroyed by fire, water, insects or accidents. There are forgeries, partial forgeries, restored pages and part-pages. Missing folios might have been deconstructed and sold page-by-page, or stripped of their covers to disguise their provenance, or left in a box in an attic to be discovered some day–or crumble into dust.
Rasmussen includes lots of information about the materials used for the covers and the VIPs who received dedicated copies of the folio and a Pope who nearly absconded with one that belonged to the Royal Shakespeare Company. One folio has a bullet hole in it; another has a stain that may be blood, or red wine. Some have nibbled corners and many have margin notes, scribbled by actors, owners or random readers. A few have been famously stolen and recovered. It’s a very decent detective story, although the search does read a bit like a hobby for privileged academics or obsessed bibliophiles. But, Shakespeare! It’s Shakespeare, so anything goes–hunting for books that were made for rich people that are today so fantastically valuable that they can only be afforded by rich people could be a plot for the theatre of the absurd.
When I lived in Washington D.C. I used to hang out at the Folger Shakespeare Library but I cannot remember if I ever saw their First Folio on display. It’s more than likely but I’m surprised that I don’t recall. Shakespeare never knew about this collected work–it doesn’t have any of the sonnets but it is divided into the tragedies, comedies and histories. Without it, there would probably be no record of MacBeth, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew or Julius Caesar. Try to imagine the value and the lure of a folio had Shakespeare assembled one himself–a definitive volume. Too bad he never took the time to collect his own work for posterity–hard to forget seeing that! I wonder whom he would have dedicated it to? And I wonder how many of the folios that actually were printed in 1623 might still be out there, uncounted and unaccounted for? Eric Rasmussen, Anthony James West, Donald L. Bailey, Lara Hansen, Sara Stewart, Mark Farnsworth and Trey Jansen–Team First Folio–may yet uncover a few surprises, each worth considerably more than the £1 cost of the original book.
The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios Eric Rasmussen | Palgrave Macmillan 2011