Shake­speare’s First Fo­lios didn’t play sec­ond fid­dle

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY DEN­NIS DRA­BELLE

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

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