"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Shakespeare and the Folio Hunters: A Detective Story

750 copies of the first folio edition of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies were published after the playwright's death in 1623 on the initiative of two of the actors in Shakespeare's acting company, The King's Men.  John Heminges and Henry Condell were fed up with the fact that so many bootleg editions of the individual plays were circulating.  Today 232 of these First Folios have been located and (almost) each one has been seen by scholar Eric Rasmussen who has written a surprisingly fascinating book, The Shakespeare Thefts (Palgrave Macmillan) about his team's search for the missing First Folios and their painstaking examination of the ones we do know about. Some will have perished in fires, some will have been torn up to wrap vegetables in, and some will exist in private collections, probably stolen, and thus secreted away.

This is a book full of stories, of obsessive collectors, of careless owners, of thieves, of fantasists (like the man who lived with his old Mum on a weekly carer's allowance and funded a lavish lifestyle on stolen credit cards used to purchase a stolen First Folio), of rich men looking for the ultimate status symbol, of Japanese universities owning no fewer than twelve of the things from the days when the yen would get you whatever you wanted.  In 2002 Sir Paul Getty paid $7 million for his entry to this very special millionaire's club.  In 1623 it cost £1 which for the time was a staggering amount so it has never been an object for the ordinary person.  Rasmussen calls this a "literary detective story" and it has all the appeal of a page-turning chase after the elusive Folios, many of which must still be out there.  But beware: a worryingly large number of people have died shortly after acquiring their copy.  For an academic book this is a pacy read, written in a lively popular style and highly recommended.  My only suggestion is that Rasmussen and the team should reach down their copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and look up the meaning of "disinterest" (p23).

What would one do if one had the dosh to acquire a First Folio?  Probably look at it lovingly then replace it in the fireproof vault and pull down the RSC complete Shakespeare edited by Jonathan Bate.  And Eric Rasmussen.

1 comment:

Hannah Stoneham said...

This sounds like a really interesting book - I am wondering who tore one up to wrap vegatables in! Thanks for posting, I think it sounds brilliant. As for what i would do, I think I would donate it to a national museum or library, possibly requesting that a bench or a table or some such be named after me in return....

Thanks for sharing