Professor of Shakespeare Emma Smith authenticated the First Folio that was discovered on the Isle of Bute after 400 years in obscurity. A collection of his 36 plays from 1623, it is currently one of the world's most valuable books. However, First Folios have not always been so appreciated, as Professor Smith explains.
The question of Shakespeare’s First Folio is partly why I’m in Hertford College with Emma Smith (Somerville, 1988), Fellow and Tutor of English and Professor of Shakespeare Studies. As part of an Oxford team, she was hired recently to visit a stately home on the Isle of Bute in Scotland. There, in September 2015, she had the thrill of uncovering a hitherto ‘lost’ copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, unusually bound in three volumes, one each for the comedies, the histories and the tragedies (‘Actually quite a good idea!’ she notes).
Professor Smith, pictured here at Hertford, identified the Folio as formerly belonging to Isaac Reed, a literary editor working in London in the 18th century
The world’s media, primed for Shakepeare frenzy around the 400th Anniversary of his death on April 23, 1616, went bananas when the Bute story went public the same month; Smith compared the discovery to ‘spotting a Panda,’ a remark that found currency, not least in China, where Shakespeare has gone ballistic following Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s ‘personal’ visit to Stratford-upon-Avon a few years ago.
In the interest of Oxonian scepticism, I ask Smith why she compared the discovery of yet another First Folio to spotting a Panda, when by her own admission First Folios are comparatively numerous? ‘I’d been thinking about conservationists and what they call ‘apex species. Shakespeare’s First Folio is the literary equivalent of an apex species, it has charisma, it is exciting.’
The First Folio in three volumes that was authenticated by Professor Smith and her team
Yet the paradox of all this is presented unflinchingly by Smith herself in two books published around the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, a death which, she reminds us, was greeted by London’s literati with silence, and non-inclusion of the bard in Westminster Abbey unlike contemporary Francis Beaumont, who died the same year – and quite apart from the outpouring of elegies for Richard Burbage, another playwright who died in 1619. In Shakespeare’s case, the First Folio was in fact the closest thing he got to a memorial, and it was only published seven years after his death.
Publication of the First Folio was a huge and precarious commercial bet by the publishers. Followed up by a second edition nine years later, and a more significantly enlarged Third Folio in 1663/4, Smith reminds us that ‘In economic terms, it is clear that the First Folio had lost its immediate use-value by the later seventeenth century.’ Its price fell below what it had sold for; it was a secondhand book pure and simple. The Bodleian Library, at this point, got shot of its copy with no further ado. Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute, where Professor Smith travelled to investigate the book's authenticity
Then, gradually, across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, First Folios rose in prominence as ‘collectibles’, valued as ‘pure exchange value,’ Smith reminds us, ‘the definition of a commodity: a thing, rather than an object.’ The collectors who most wanted copies were least likely to read them, and if you fast forward to the present, institutional ownership of a copy is at best a mixed blessing, with enormous costs of insurance and the burden of not being able to touch the thing for fear of damaging it – no more or less than a secular relic, perhaps as daft as getting excited about the toe nail clippings of an obscure saint.
But pouring cold water all over it doesn’t change the fact that if you discovered a copy of the First Folio in an attic, you are extremely unlikely to put it in the recycling.
Thereupon hangs the great tale told by Smith, in one volume that works backwards from the publication of the iconic book, and another than works forwards. If a book can be said to have a biography of its own, in keeping with Borges’ quip that ‘when writers die, they become books,’ then the First Folio surely has one of the finest. It has acquired not just cultural weight, but a sort of density of meaning, so much so that when Senate House (London University) tried to sell their copy in 2013, they were met by a barrage of public anger, not just for breaking faith with the original donor (Sir Louis Sterling, 1956), but for ‘a short-sighted market-oriented act of cultural vandalism.’ The First Folio, so went the argument, was priceless.
Professor Smith has been exceptionally busy this year, also putting together the Bodleian's exhibition of its two First Folios
At this point Smith dips into Oceanic cultural anthropology and the notion of the inalienable possession, and the idea of an ongoing accumulation of weight of ‘identity’ as a possession, in this case a book, runs through the hands of different collectors and owners over the ages. She delves at length into the very first First Folio purchase by Edward Dering, an episode of cultural history in its own right. Beyond it, a treasure trove of finger marks, wine stains, marginalia –including in one instance a marking of the date of the outbreak of World War One, and four years later, on the same page, the Armistice- plus the increasingly empty (we might say) pursuit of ownership for its own sake and as a purely financial investment.
On the latter note, I ask, was the famous Daniel purchase of a First Folio in July 1864 by Angela Burdett Coutts (for a record £714, amid another bout of Shakespeare-mania, with the tercentenary of his birth) the start line for this baneful but lucrative process? Self-evidently, says Smith, reminding me that Oriel College sold their copy for an estimated £3.5 million to the Getty Institute as recently as 2002, a sum far ahead of any inflationary accumulation on £714 since 1864.
The First Folio is not the world’s most expensive book (Gutenberg bibles outstrip it; also the elephant folio of Audubon’s Birds of America), and copies crop up on the market at least every decade. The Bodleian recovered its own First Folio in 1906 following a public subscription for the then unimaginably vulgar sum of £3,000. Go back to 1664, and the librarians had done the equivalent of putting it in the recycling, selling it as part of a ‘job lot of so-called ‘superfluous Library books sold by order of the Curators.’’ Return to 1906 and a long list of distinguished Oxford figures including numerous heads of house and even the Director of the Ashmolean Museum, refused to put a penny into the enterprise, perhaps for the same reason – pooh-poohing the ‘fictitious,’ monetary valuation of an otherwise superseded text. When the Bodleian rustled up £20,000 from the public in its 2012, Olympic-themed ‘Sprint for Shakespeare,’ (digitisation of its First Folio for public consumption), very few people knew or were told that the library actually has two copies.
Taming of the Shrew being performed in the Old Schools Quadrangle of the Bodleian
These inherently paradoxical issues will no doubt tumble around in perpetuity, but the cultural history of the First Folio as told here by Smith, is as delicious and roundabout as you might imagine, peopled by maniacal collectors, English gentlemen and American squillionares – and also by colonial sorts, and even criminals. They all wanted a totem of greatness, with Shakespeare as a proxy. In purely financial terms none of them did badly, confirming that in this regard, at least, they acted rationally.
Professor Emma Smith is also Tutor and Fellow in English at Hertford College. Her books on the First Folio are: The Making of the Shakespeare’s First Folio (Bodleian Library, 2015); Shakespeare’s First Folio, Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (OUP, 2016).
Images: Oxford University Images, Richard Lofthouse, Shutterstock, Bob Marsden