The Shakespeare Thefts by Eric Rasmussen

Summer Reading List!

In Search of the First Folios

shake theft

Six years after Shakespeare’s death,  John Heminge and Henry Condell – two of the actors from his company, The King’s Men – gathered together all of his dramatic works and published them in an impressive 908 page hardback book. Bound in calfskin and measuring fourteen inches by nine inches by three inches, it was their one and only foray into publishing and was either a runaway success or a financially ruinous catastrophe, depending on which version you prefer – but whatever the truth, the original 750 copies rapidly became some of the most coveted books in the English language.

Eric Rasmussen is a recognized Shakespearean scholar and – among his many other credentials – is co-editor of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s superb Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (If you’re a Shakespeare wallah and you don’t already have the RSC Shakespeare – what are you waiting for?) He also heads a team of First Folio hunters, real-life Indiana Joneses dedicated to tracking down and cataloguing the 232 extant copies as well as trying to piece together the stories of those that are (apparently) no longer with us.

Owners of First Folios tend to be skittish characters, unwilling to let the outside world near their precious charges, but Rasmussen and his team aren’t engaged in a form of glorified train-spotting, ticking the editions off as they see them, they are on a mission to catalogue them minutely, noting stains, ink blots, replaced pages, marginalia, bullet holes and blood. Each edition is unique. No matter how well cared for, it bears the marks of its journey through nearly four centuries, and those marks mean that, even if thieves rip the covers off (oh, the pain …) the books remain easily identifiable. Rasmussen and his co-searchers are therefore offering a form of insurance.

Of course, they’re also enjoying themselves immensely and that, above all other qualities, is what makes this little book so thoroughly enjoyable. Although the author is an academic heavyweight, he wears his learning very lightly indeed – and deploys his transparent enthusiasm for the subject like a floodlight, illuminating the dark little corners of human obsession with humour and compassion, albeit leavened with a healthy dose of scepticism.

The disparate stories of the First Folios include if not actual murders, then at least mysterious and/or sudden deaths (lots of them – First Folios should come with health warnings), deception, theft and clouds and clouds of obscuring dust. There are lost copies that may or may not have been used as wrapping paper, stolen copies that were found, (ie: the Bodleian’s), and stolen copies that may yet be found, (Hereford Cathedral’s, which vanished sometime in the 17th Century). Along the way we meet a raft of extraordinary characters, like Count Gondomar, Spanish Ambassador to the Court of King James, who was one of the first owners of a First Folio and the ‘Most Hated Man in England’, or the unfortunate Caleb Fiske Harris and his wife, who inexplicably drowned in a boating lake in full public view without anyone apparently making any attempt to save them.

Nor is Rasmussen slow in telling stories at his own expense. His tale of the portrait of a bald man in Elizabethan costume that he bought at Sotheby’s for £1,000, convinced that it was a hitherto unknown portrait of Our Will, is priceless. The expensive restoration work he paid himself for revealed that the man was neither bald nor Shakespeare and his ‘handling’ of the media interest is an uncomfortable but hilarious reminder of how easy it is to end up looking like a total prat when someone shoves a microphone up your nose.

The Shakespeare Thefts is not an exhaustive, academic description of the details and histories of each and every known  First Folio copy – if you want that, you need The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue. What it is is a fascinating, educational and immensely entertaining guided tour through the colourful history of the most stolen book in the world


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