Shakespeare: The First Folio
Berry, Ralph, Contemporary Review
FOLIO, a sheet of paper which is folded in half, making two leaves or four pages. Fold it again and you have a quarto, with one sheet supplying eight pages. The folio format makes for a large, prestigious book, which has to be bound; quarto is half the size, suitable for a paperback edition. That was the format in which a number of Shakespeare's plays had been printed, during and after his lifetime, and the Collected Plays (as we would say) came out in 1623, seven years after his death. Now known as the First Folio, that volume is the focus of the world's collectors, scholars, and--occasionally--thieves.
One such showed up recently, when a man took a stolen copy of the First Folio to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., to have the copy authenticated. He was immediately arrested and then charged by police in Durham. The book had been stolen from a display case in the University of Durham. No doubt this book dealer displayed naivety, but the man went to the right place. If you want to know about first folios, go to the Folger. They have seventy-nine copies there.
Oddly enough, the First Folio, for all its fame, is not really a rare book. Some 240 copies are known to be in existence. It is thought that perhaps 1000 were printed, with a price at [pounds sterling]1 (forty times the cost of an individual quarto). That made it expensive, and the copies must have been fairly well looked after. Sooner or later, a third of the extant copies fell into the hands of a great collector, whose name dominates the later story of the book: Henry Clay Folger.
Folger (1857-1930) was not a man of huge wealth to begin with. He became however President and Chairman of the Standard Oil Company, and devoted his large income to buying books. These he housed eventually in the Folger Shakespeare Library, a monumental gift to the nation. Within a classical exterior is a Tudor interior; within that are steel vaults controlled for humidity and temperature, so as to guarantee the absolute security of the library's treasures.
The rarest of these treasures are the Shakespeare quartos. They yield only to a mighty hunter. Nothing conveys better the flavour of Folger's early days than John Quincy Adams' account of the pursuit of the first edition of Titus Andronicus. It had turned up among the possessions of a Swedish postal clerk, which he had inherited from his father, and the find was reported in 1905:
Mr Folger was thus enabled to read of the discovery in an eight-line dispatch to The New York Times of January 11. In great excitement he cabled to his London agent, Henry Sotheran and Company, to send a representative post-haste to Sweden to negotiate for the purchase of the treasure, and then waited, he tells us, in growing apprehension. Five days later came over the wires the laconic message: 'Representative now in Sweden'; the following day came a second message: 'Bought. Cable immediately two thousand pounds direct to account of Petrus Johannes Krafft, Ricksbanken, Malmo, Sweden'; and a short time later the prize was in his hands.
It is still the only known copy to exist. The world knows of the folios, but the collector dreams above all of landing a quarto. Only two copies are known of the 'Bad' First Quarto of Hamlet. One is in the British Museum, the other in the Huntington Library of California (that great 'collection of collections, or library of libraries'. Henry E. Huntington had bought up the Duke of Devonshire's library). Not even the Folger has that.
Other libraries have not been idle, of course. The British Museum has five copies of the First Folio. George III got there first, ahead of the Americans, with his Royal Library (incorporating David Garrick's collection of old plays). Trinity College, Cambridge has two copies, and the superb Bodmer Library, Zurich, has one. That is because Martin Bodmer made it a rule never to buy a duplicate, and always to insist on a copy in first-class shape. …