Breaking Shakespeare

Coming to you live from the Shakespeare Association of America annual conference, this is an aptly Shakespearean post. I’m leading the book history seminar this year (“Shakespeare for Sale”) and, inevitably, a big part of the discussion about Shakespeare in print is that big Shakespearean book, the Folio (sometimes capitalized to denote its status as a kind of secular scripture). I have to spend a significant amount of time thinking and writing about Shakespeare folios in my line of work, so I’ll refrain from saying anything more than that the image below should be extremely familiar:

I say only “Folio,” rather than “First Folio” because this image is taken from the Iowa copy of the Second Folio of 1632 (catalog record here). Well, that’s not exactly right, either, because the title-page of the Iowa copy is actually a facsimile — a relatively skillful facsimile, but one that is easily identifiable as such in person. There is a long history of making up incomplete or damaged copies of Shakespeare folios with pieces drawn from other (genuine) folios, or with facsimiles. The title-page portrait and the preliminaries are particularly susceptible, since they are, of course, more easily damaged (especially if unbound) and particularly desirable as collector’s items.

The image here doesn’t quite capture the color and texture of the paper, but it’s obvious even to those without much experience looking at early modern books. In fact, I hadn’t really taken a close look at this copy before I showed it to my first book history course at Iowa. A few students noticed the marked difference in the color of the paper, and after a quick glance it was clear this was a facsimile (which was then conveniently confirmed by a bookseller’s note that is kept with this book). Since this is really the only example of a proper 17th century Shakespeare play that we have in the collection, it startled a few of the students (our best Shakespeare book is a fake?!) but it proved to be a good opportunity to explain the particular value (cultural and financial) of Shakespeare folios, and how each individual copy has its own story to tell.

But a facsimile title-page is not the only thing wrong with this copy — or, rather, the only thing that went wrong, since in that very same class session, the somewhat precarious upper board of the binding snapped off. In a certain iconoclastic sense, it was quite satisfying to see an object of such renown (if, admittedly, not nearly in the same league as a First Folio) lying broken on the foam supports on the classroom table. And before you gasp along with my students, rest assured that this was not a contemporary 17th century binding, but a turn of the 20th century Riviere collector’s binding:

This occasioned two important lessons for my class — first, this is not how a Shakespeare folio in the 1630s would normally have looked, with the familiar (to us, anyway) red morocco and gilt edges. Surviving copies of the First Folio show that it could be sold in something as relatively cheap and plain as a simple vellum binding, or perhaps without a binding, so that it could be customized by the customer. Second, it shows that you do need to be careful when handling early modern books, even those that have been subsequently rebound — but, perhaps of greater importance, it shows that books are made to be used, and sometimes that use results in some damage. Anyone who has handled rare books knows the dangers of doing so — and knows the feeling of trying to turn, ever so patiently and carefully, a particularly precarious page. We’ve all called up books that are tied together with string, often with the bindings nearly or completely broken (or books which start out as the former and end as the latter by the time we’re done). This is why I’m always grateful for libraries which, like the Folger, generally trust the readers to take good care of the books, rather than locking them up and forcing one to deal with the (inevitably difficult and inadequate) microfilm copy.

Our broken Shakespeare was a direct result of one of the best parts about our Special Collections — they want students to come in and use the books, giving them the crucial hands-on experience that this kind of work requires.What good is a collection if we can’t use it? And when something does need mending, we can call on our crack conservation team, led by the inimitable Gary Frost. (Gary and the folks in conservation have been busy, aiding in recovery projects for disasters like Katrina and the Iowa floods of 2008) Gary is now a part of the history of the Second Folio, since his name is now pasted into the back:

Gary was able to reseal the loose hinge, which you can see in the images below:

So it’s now just about as good as new (better than new, in my view) and is now free to be displayed to and handled by our students. And it gives me a good story to tell — I broke Shakespeare.

Autor: literatura inglesa

Cátedra de Literatura inglesa de la Universidad de Buenos Aires. Publicación de artículos, notas y trabajos monográficos de profesores y alumnos y de información de interés inherente a la materia.

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