Book #4 in the series is another non-fiction- The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios by Eric Rasmussen.
I love the mysteries of the first folios. The first edition of Shakespeare’s collected works, the First Folio, published in 1623, is one of the most valuable books in the world and has
historically proven to be an attractive target for thieves. Of the 160 First Folios listed in a census of 1902, 14 were subsequently stolen-and only two of these were ever recovered. They have been stolen, smuggled, sold, destroyed and preserved by some of the wealthiest and poorest people in the world.
In Washington DC there is an amazing building called The Folger Shakespeare Library. (I was able to go there last fall and take a tour- unreal for the Shakespeare nerd in me.) It is the largest collection of First Folios in the world (yep, more than England). Obviously as the books are highly valued there are numerous fake copies that people are trying to pass off as real. To prevent this from happening a group of the world’s leading Shakespearean scholars spend years documenting every flaw!
In his efforts to catalog all these precious First Folios, renowned Shakespeare scholar Eric Rasmussen embarked on a riveting journey around the globe, involving run-ins with heavily tattooed criminal street gangs in Tokyo, bizarre visits with eccentric, reclusive billionaires, and intense battles of wills with secretive librarians. He explores the intrigue surrounding the Earl of Pembroke, arguably Shakespeare’s boyfriend, to whom the First Folio is dedicated and whose personal copy is still missing. He investigates the uncanny sequence of events in which a wealthy East Coast couple drowned in a boating accident and the next week their First Folio appeared for sale in Kansas. We hear about Folios that were censored, the pages ripped out of them, about a volume that was marked in red paint-or is it blood?-on every page; and of yet another that has a bullet lodged in its pages.
Here are three of my favorite stories:
- In 1964 three members of the Royal Shakespeare Company traveled to Rome to perform in front of Pope Paul VI. This was, surprisingly, the first time a Pope was documented viewing a Shakespearean production. The actors brought the RSC’s prized copy of The First Folio to have the Pope bless it after the performance. Apparently no one informed the Pope who accepted it as a gift. And since no one corrects the Pope the actors didn’t know what to do! It took months of diplomatic negotiating to get the folio returned to the proper owner. There is no record of the folio ever being blessed.
- One folio, the Thomas Killigrew copy, has a bullet wound. The bullet went through the first half of the book and stopped at Titus Andronicus. This lead to the theater joke that Titus is the inpenetrable play.
- One of the folios almost made it into Hitler’s rare book collection. The thief who stole it, David Lynch, was scared that the man who hired him to steal the book in 1940 was planning to sell it to Hitler. So he turned himself in to suffer the consequences of the theft rather than have it turned over to hands who would abuse it.
The First Folios have a long and sorted history. For those of you who enjoy history or just a good spy novel this might be a great book for you to read!
The book for next week is Outwitting Trolls by William Tapply.