Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, by Emma Smith

We are spellbound by an opus whose copies once gathered crumbs and scribbles, says Lisa Hopkins

May 19, 2016
Statue of William Shakespeare, Central Park, New York City
Source: iStock

Who bought copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio? And what did they do with them? Emma Smith’s “biography of a book” tells us exactly that. It takes us from the first recorded buyer of the book – Sir Edward Dering, who purchased two copies on 5 December 1623 for £2, a quarter of what he was soon to spend on an alarm clock – to unquestionably the most committed such consumer, Henry Clay Folger, who acquired 47 First Folios in total, even though his business partner John D. Rockefeller expressed serious worry about the judgement of a man who could spend $100,000 on a book (it is not clear, moreover, whether Rockefeller grasped that this was a book Folger already had).

Some owners never understood what they owned: one such was the Countess of Caledon, who wondered whether the handwritten annotations in her husband’s copy were by Shakespeare himself. Other people were prepared to put money towards copies they were not themselves going to own, such as the many donors to the campaign to buy back the Folio originally held in the Bodleian, and later the donors who contributed to the cost of digitising that copy.

Smith’s account of the Folio’s distinguished career is very nicely written and consistently entertaining and informative. It is judiciously structured, moving from an opening survey of owners of the Folio to a chapter focused on what they did to their copies, including eating over them, writing in them, and allowing them to be walked over by cats. Of particular interest are the annotations made in a First Folio by William Johnstoune (who may have been Ben Jonson’s nephew) because he did not know the plays when he began reading them, and we can catch the moments when he grasps plot details. I found a section on the correcting of misprints less compelling, but I can imagine some readers for whom this would be a highlight.

A chapter on “Decoding” includes a very entertaining account of Ignatius Donnelly’s 1888 The Great Cryptogram, which attempted to prove that the plays were by Bacon; another considers the tradition of acting from the Folio text. The book concludes with an examination of efforts made by a number of owners to brand their own copies as unique (including one hopeful who changed the publication date of his to 1622, a year earlier than everyone else’s), and the fashion for booksellers to advertise their particular copy as the tallest, the widest or the largest known to be in existence.

This of course brings us to the paradox of the First Folio: it is not a particularly rare book, and has by no means been always perceived as an outstandingly valuable one, and yet it has somehow come to stand as something unique in itself. Folger felt that each of his 47 copies deserved its place in his collection, even though he kept them packed away and inaccessible both to scholars and himself, and people gave money to digitise the Bodleian copy even though digitised versions of other First Folios were already freely available. It is the modern equivalent of a magic book, and Smith’s own book does justice to that magic.

Lisa Hopkins is professor of English, Sheffield Hallam University.

Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book
By Emma Smith
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £19.99
ISBN 9780198754367
Published 24 March 2016

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