The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios
- Eric Rasmussen
- Palgrave MacMillan
- 240 pp.
- October 12, 2011
With its short, stand-alone chapters, this potentially weighty discussion of Shakespeare’s original Folios is an accessible, engaging read.
Reviewed by Eleanor Brown
You don’t have to be a Shakespeare fan or a rare book expert to enjoy The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios. Light and lively, Eric Rasmussen’s survey of his experiences researching and cataloguing the first attempt at a comprehensive edition of William Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623 and now known as the First Folio, provides enough anecdotes and curious trivia to supply a year’s worth of dinner party conversation and a few heist movies, as well.
When William Shakespeare was alive, about half of his plays were published in “quarto” form — small, comic book-sized editions of the plays. After his death, two actors from his company set about publishing a more complete volume, containing 36 of what we now consider his full list of 37 surviving plays. Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was a larger book, bound in calfskin and yellow silk, running 908 pages and selling for the princely sum of £1, “an enormous sum in an age when a skilled tradesman could expect to earn £4 in a year.”
Some 200-plus copies of what is now known as the First Folio are now publicly accounted for, owned by private collectors (such as Microsoft’s Paul Allen), colleges and universities (including the formidable Shakespeare Library of Japan’s Meisei University) and other institutions like the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. (Henry Clay Folger, president of Standard Oil, purchased multiple copies of each of the four Folios, including 82 copies of the First Folio, which the Folger Library now possesses.)
Eric Rasmussen, a professor of English and Shakespeare editor, and a white-hat “Ocean’s 11” dream team of researchers have spent the past 25 years on a mission to catalogue each and every one. This is no easy task, not only because gaining access to some of the copies, particularly those in the hands of private collectors, is difficult, but because of the level of detail the team’s cataloguing entails: every mark, notation made by previous owners, fold, bend and tiny error is precisely detailed. An excerpt of the description of a single copy runs nearly six pages. A typical note might read, “repaired tear at line b42 partially obscures 2 letters, printers ink spot a40 partially obscures 2 letters.”
Such intense scrutiny, Rasmussen argues, is important for a number of reasons, beginning with the matter of historical record. The provenance of many of these texts can be traced back for hundreds of years, in many cases weaving through the lives of important historical figures and time periods, such as the Spanish Inquisition and the Cromwell Protectorate. In the process, the books have been used for any number of purposes and bear marks — the impressions of rusted scissors and spectacles, a human hair likely from one of the Folio’s original printers and, in one notable case, a bullet hole — and marginalia, notations scribbled by their previous owners. In addition to the history of their ownership, the First Folios contain “400 years of reader responses to Shakespeare’s plays … copies marked up for performance … records of bookplates, armorial stamps, watermarks, press variants, and bindings,” materials which would benefit any number of researchers.
The First Folios are also extremely valuable. Paul Allen paid $6 million for his copy, Sir Paul Getty $7 million for his. Because of their value, private collectors often keep their possession secret and some have refused to allow Rasmussen’s team to examine them; in making this decision, owners are depriving themselves of a beneficial service since, as he points out, his team’s work “makes these treasures highly identifiable and therefore less of a target.” The level of detail with which the books are described is actually a deterrent to theft, as the ability not only to determine that a work is a genuine First Folio, but precisely which extant copy it is, makes its sale much more difficult.
This fear of theft is not unwarranted. Most of the chapters in the book are concerned with the history of a specific copy of the First Folio, and many copies have gone missing at one time or another. Perhaps the most famous recent case, which Rasmussen describes with full respect for the circus that story became, is that of Durham University’s copy. Professional, if hapless, con artist Raymond Scott brought the copy to the Folger Library for authentication in 2008, though he already knew it was authentic as it had been stolen from a university library in 1998. Ultimately, Scott was tried and convicted of handling stolen property. But copies of the book have been stolen again and again over the years, by a son-in-law from his father-in-law in the 19th century, to a group of somewhat disorganized thieves in the 1940s.
Despite Rasmussen’s academic pedigree, The Shakespeare Thefts is a highly accessible read, with chapters that can be read as brief individual articles. Rasmussen manages the necessary history easily, and so clearly conveys his love of Shakespeare the man and of this rare book in particular that it is impossible not to catch at least a little of his excitement. Luckily for Washingtonians, the Folger Library has digital copies of the First Folio online and in its gallery for easy access.
Eleanor Brown is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Weird Sisters. Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, she now lives in Colorado.