Shakespeare’s First Folios didn’t play second fiddle
Toward the end of her stirring book, economics professor Andrea Mays wonders if a new addition shouldn’t be made to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s decorations: a sculpture of an oil derrick to remind us where the place came from. The benefactor who opened his checkbook again and again to acquire First Folios, and who built a library in the nation’s capital to house them, earned his dough as a manager and stockholder of Standard Oil. Henry Clay Folger Jr. (1857-1930) may not have been the richest man or biggest spender in America, but few Gilded Age plutocrats put their fortunes to more admirable use.
Let’s begin with a refresher course in the provenance of the 37 Shakespeare plays we have. No handwritten manuscripts have survived. Some of the plays were printed individually while the Bard was alive, in small editions called quartos, apparently without his permission. The work was so haphazard that when Shakespeare died in 1616, Mays writes, “half of his plays existed only in pirated, corrupted, and bastardized printings far removed from his original language.”
A fewyears later, two members of a troupe to which Shakespeare had belonged — John Heminges and Henry Condell — set out to honor him by gathering and pub-
lishing all the plays. This sentimental impulse led, in 1623, to the First Folio — Mays calls it “the most important secular book in the English language” — a large-sized edition with a print run of around 750 copies. (Later editors produced Second, Third and Fourth Folios.) Not only did the First Folio give us more accurate texts, but without it the plays left unprinted during Shakespeare’s lifetime might have been lost— no “Tempest” or “Julius Caesar” or “Macbeth,” for example. More than that, Mays suggests, we might not even know that those plays had existed. We can only guess at the sources used by Heminges and Condell, and the printers made numerous errors. But the pair had done far more than just commemorate an old pal; they had enriched world literature beyond measure.
Folger’s father owned a millinery supply business, and an uncle was the hot-drink magnate who gave the world Folger’s coffee. After graduating from Amherst College and Columbia Law School, young Folger exploited connections to become a “statistical clerk” at Standard Oil of New Jersey. By dint of intelligence and hard work, he eventually rose to the top of the firm.
A great reader, Folger had already assembled a sizable home library when he walked into a Manhattan auction house one day in 1889. There he made a momentous purchase: a Fourth Folio, not in very good shape, for $107.50. By the time his collecting days were over, he’d spent hundreds of times as much on a First Folio. He could afford it: At one point, he was pulling down a salary of $100,000 a year — roughly the equivalent of $2.5 million today.
As Folger started collecting them, only about 240 First Folios survived. He ended up owning 82 — “more than twice the number of copies known to exist in all of England” — which now reside in his eponymous library on Capitol Hill. Book hunting is obviously a thrill for the man or woman who engages in it, but Mays has the gift of making it exciting to read about, too.
Early on, Folger haggled. But after losing some choice items, he changed tactics. His mature approach was to sniff out an opportunity, keep his identity secret, work through a dealer and make such a sweet offer that the owner would accept it before the book went on the market.
Although Mays’s research is nigh-monumental, she makes a few dubious assertions. For example, she reports that in the 19th century the British Shakespeare Society’s big contribution “was to introduce the commonly accepted modern spelling of Shakespeare’s name.” A better verb would be “re-introduce,” since according to a 1993 article by Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass in the Shakespeare Quarterly — a journal published by the Folger Library itself— that spelling was in use as early as 1609, when a printer inserted an “e” between “Shak” and “speare” as an economy move. The “s” of the period, you may recall, was shaped rather like an “f ”; when it stood next to a “k,” the close quarters could cause one or both letters to break during a print run.
Mays crisply explains why the Folger Library ended up in Washington, D.C., rather than Manhattan, where the Folgers lived. Early in the 20th century, real estate prices were considerably higher in New York (as they are now), and Folger was merely rich, not filthy rich. To build a repository big enough to hold his collection, he had to buy up a block’s worth of properties, and that would have been out of reach in New York. He died before the handsome white building on East Capitol Street was complete, but his wife, Emily, saw the project through. Mays reminds us of how thoroughly the couple identified with their library by noting that, in accordance with Emily’s will, their ashes are kept onsite.
As the epigraph to her book, Mays quotes Milton’s encomium to Shakespeare’s poetry as his “live-long monument.” The same can be said of the Folgers’ relationship to their library.
Book hunting is obviously a thrill for the man or woman who engages in it, but author Andrea Mays has the gift of making it exciting to read about, too.
An engraving of the Bard byMartin Droeshout is displayed as part of the exhibit “The ‘First Folio’: William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies,” at the BritishMuseum in London in July 2012.
THE MILLIONAIRE AND THE BARD Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio Andrea Mays Simon & Schuster 350 pp. $27