A First Folio Found on 400th Anniversary

Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute

Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute

Check your bookshelves! Between the dog-eared copy of Fifty Shades of Gray and the un-cracked Knausgaard, you might find a valuable, out-of-print first edition. Or maybe even a First Folio!

That’s what happened in Scotland. A copy of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays (roughly a 750 print run) published in 1623, seven years after his death and called the First Folio – was found at Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute, of all places. I mean, the Isle of Bute??

The book, owned by the Seventh Marquess of Bute, Johnny Dumfries, had been shelved in the library at Mount Stuart House, an enormous Gothic revival pile and tourist attraction in the firth of Clyde, about 60 miles west of Glasgow.

Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University, said her first reaction on being told the stately home was claiming to have an original First Folio was: “Like bloody hell they have.” But when she inspected the book she found it was authentic. “We’ve found a First Folio that we didn’t know existed,” said Prof Smith. “It’s like spotting a Panda.” The announcement brings the number of known surviving First Folios to 234.

What the Folio Did for Us

The circumstances surrounding the creation of the First Folio are of keen interest to people inquiring into the authorship issue. Of course there are no existing manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets. Nothing much from Shakespeare’s hand at all, except a poorly written will and some business records. He left no letters. No notes. No literary record of any kind, which in itself is strange. Ben Jonson left a ton of stuff behind, as did other writers of the time. So with no record, how do we know about the plays at all? Two ways: the Quartos and the First Folio.

The Quartos were small format imprints of some of the individual plays, rather like today’s paperbacks. The name “Shakespeare” had some currency at the time and printers believed they could make some money by printing and selling small versions, sometimes without having any rights to do so. But not all the plays became Quartos. Of the 36 plays we know about, only 18 were printed as Quarto. So without any manuscripts, and no Quarto, how do we know about the other 18? Right: the First Folio.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the first collected edition of the plays was published. John Heminges and Henry Condell, members of the King’s Men theater company to which Shakespeare had belonged, collected the plays and with some help of Ben Jonson, created the First Folio. Without this book we would have no record of plays such as Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and The Tempest.

On the surface the Folio would seem to be clear evidence that a guy named William Shakespeare was the author of the plays. The official story argues that his colleagues loved Shakespeare so much and thought so highly of the that they just had to preserve them (and maybe make a little money as well). Makes sense.

A Charismatic Book

A Charismatic Book

Why Wait so Long?

But one question that arises is: why wait seven years? Why hadn’t Shakespeare himself ever made an effort to collect his own work? Or publish it. Ever? When Shakespeare died (the one from Stratford) on April 23, 1616, 400 years ago almost to the day, there was no public outpouring or expression whatsoever. No obituaries about the loss of a great poet. No eulogies. No announcement in the London Times. Nothing. Silence. Shakespeare was a non-entity.

Apparently it took seven years for everyone to awaken to his greatness, after which he was compared to Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles (As he should be). There are other things about the history of this book that also merit thought that goes beyond the official story. Ben Jonson’s participation has some curious aspects. Up to 1623 Jonson didn’t have much good to say about William Shakespeare. And then after many, many years he calls him the “Soul of the Age.” It’s weird that NO other writers were chosen to add nice comments to the new book. Jonson had many more tributes from other writers in his own folio than Shakespeare. In fact Jonson is the only major writer to write a tribute at all—this for the man known as the “Soul of the age.” There are official explanations for all of this. They are reasoned and will be taught in English classrooms throughout the world. But there are some weird things going on with the official story that merits a closer look. (You might start with Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?, edited by John M. Shahan and Alexander Waugh)

That being said, First Folios are among the world’s most sought-after and valuable books. Christie’s recently announced that it was selling what it calls a previously unrecorded First Folio from a “discreet and off-the-radar” private collection, valued at 1.1million to 1.7million.

The Scottish copy is the personal property of Mr. Dumfries, a former Formula One driver who is descended from Robert the Bruce, the medieval hero of Scottish Independence. The book will not be sold and will remain on the Isle of Bute, which has a population of around 6500.

Like the play, the sonnets, the poems; like just about everything associated with William Shakespeare there is a quality of mystery and intrigue surrounding the Folio. A Charismatic book, indeed. Check your shelves. You never know what you might find.

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