The first copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio came off the press in early November of 1623. To honor the 390th birthday of one of the most coveted books of all time, here is a fictionalized (but true!) account of the journey two of them took, from the printer’s shop to contemporary guarded display.
London: early 1622
A grey-haired man of substantial heft and poise marched into William Jaggard’s printing shoppe carrying a thick stack of manuscripts. His companion, younger, though not by many years, stood to the side and behind him a bit as if he hoped to blend into the man’s shadow. Jaggard’s recollection was blurred by seeing the two men out of context; it took a moment before he remembered their names– John Heminge and Henry Condell, former players of the King’s Men, Will Shakespeare’s band of carousing play actors. Perhaps they had come to settle the matter of those dubious quatros he had published. Or the sonnets? What was the name? Aye, The Passionate Pilgrim, Jaggard recalled. He was nervous. “Good day. How do you?”
“Well enow, good sir. We are in need of a printer for a collection of great import,” Heminge replied.
Jaggard’s eyes narrowed. “Services will cost you. “
“Aye. We have secured a patron,” Heminge said.
The men stared at each other for a moment. “Speak with my son Isaac. Expect ‘twont be long now ‘ere God calls me. He will be the printer in my absence,” Jaggard said.
“Verily, sir, we secured the services of Edward Blount as well; alas, the folio will require a rather large amount of paper ‘ere it can print. Blount seeks your assist in this.”
Jaggard waved them off. “Nay. We are not in service for others.”
“In truth we expect you shall be rather willing, as repentance for past wrongs?” Heminge kept his gaze steady on Jaggard’s face.
The old man pursed his lips. So they had not forgotten. He thought a moment before giving his answer. “Aye,” he nodded, though reluctant. “My son will arrange ordering of papers from France. What number do you seek to print?”
“No fewer than 750.” Condell coughed. The number sounded absurd aloud.
At that Jaggard snorted. “God’s teeth! Cannot be done.”
“Blount has me assured the job can be achieved with two printers. We intend the folio be ready for the Frankfurt Book Faire,” Heminge insisted.
The old man sighed and rubbed his ailing eyes. This may well be the will of God. The King’s Men had been furious with him for publishing The Passionate Pilgrim and he had never set it right. Indeed, Jaggard had made a living partially on forging the Bard’s work. He wanted to be sure of no barriers at the gates of Saint Peter.
“Aye. It will be done.” Jaggard said. Lord willing, that is. Surely he would not be the one to stand in the way of their folly.
As Heminge opened the door to leave, he turned and said, “A last word, sir. We desire to include a note to the reader that this is the only true collection of Will’s work, to replace stol’n and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors.”
Before his sight and breath left him, a freshly pressed copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio was the last book printer William Jaggard laid eyes on in this life.
Newmarket, Suffolk: December 1623
Sir Edward Dering considered the purchases he had made for the household in the past week. A man of minor nobility, Dering could not afford the lavishness of men at court, but he very much desired to do so. He knew his weakness for the written word was affecting his accounts. As was his habit of hosting elaborate meals for well-connected acquaintances.
Toothepickes and Case. 2 padlockes. Candles. A necessity, Dering reasoned. Breakfaste. Supper. A boxe of marmald. Could not be avoided; all must have sustenance. Sugar candy. 7 pint bottles.Seeing a play. What is life if not for enjoyment?
1 December. Binding a volume of play books.
2 December. 18 playbookes. Binding 2 volumes of play books. 9 playbookes.
3 December. 9 playbookes.
4 December. 6 playbookes of Band Ruff and Cuff.
5 December. Binding a sett of playbooks. 2 playbookes. Ihonson’s playes. Drexelius his meditations. 2 volumes of Shakespeare’s playes.
He dipped his quill in the ink pot. 6 Dec. A white Cornelyan ring. Binding for the new Shakespeare volumes would have to wait. They were substantially larger than the playbooks and would therefore be costly, though they would fetch a better price later if he found it necessary to sell them. But for now, his new wife would require expenses for setting up the household and entertaining their families before he could further indulge in beautifying his collection. All in good time, Dering promised himself.
Bodysgallen Hall, North Wales: 1623
“I have been to London to see about a builder for the Great Hall,” Robert Wynn told his wife. She nodded, uninterested. “Have you been yet to see about the gardener?”
“Not quite. You see, I just arrived and…”
“He has not trimmed the hedges in days and no amount of prodding on my part has made a bit of difference.” Katherine kept with her needlepoint.
“Aye. Well. I will speak to him. As I was saying…”
“Before you continue, Robert, pray recall that the entrance hall has a draft and we spoke about getting a man to repair the rot in the wall? Has that been taken care of perchance?”
“Aye. In fact I came to say that the builder…”
“Oh! Nevermind that now. I have to undo this stitch. Bah! If not for my cold fingers I would not remove so many stitches so often. My work would be done in far more haste!”
Robert gave his wife a slight nod and backed out the doorway before replacing his hat. As he walked towards his private rooms, he picked up the book he had left on the table in the entrance hall when he came in. It was madness, really– him, buying books. Even as the new inheritor of a grand estate he felt absurd holding a book of plays, as if he were masquerading as a flamboyant man of the stage, a man full of wit and vigor and drink. But so many men of peerage were purchasing at St. Paul’s that he would have looked odd not doing it. His wife would surely chide him about it. When she read, it was only the Holy Bible, and then only when strictly necessary.
When he reached his room, he opened to the title page and wrote under the title, “Robert Wynn.” He paused, remembering he was more than plain Robert Wynn now. “Bodescalian,” he added, in honor of his title. Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, indeed! He thought. The life of one Robert Wynn!
“Word of your great knowledge and appreciation for art has reached my ears, good sir.”
“The genius of my son Christiaan leaves quite the shadow over his father’s, I must say. But not yet his fortune!”
The bookseller did not lie. Constantine Huygens was a renowned poet and collector as well as the highly-respected Dutch ambassador to England. His library was impressive, even for a man of his means. But he was wary of those who intended to part him from his ducats by taking advantage of these interests, particularly eager street vendors. “Well, what have you there?” he asked the seller.
“Ah. A wondrous thing! The original printing of Master Shakespeare’s works complied in one volume. In truth, not rare, but none like it before or since. A vital tome for all learned gentlemen such as yourself.”
“Shakespeare? The man’s blasted folio is everywhere I turn in this city!”
“Aye, yet this be the first of them. None at all altered like the second volume that followed. If I may, sir, the first is closer to the Bard himself, and therefore likely truer to his own words.”
Huygens pulled on the edge of his moustache as he considered the man’s proffer. Nobody outside of England owned a copy of Shakespeare’s first printing. At the very least, it would be a curiosity, a piece to display for his countrymen when they visited his home in Hague.
“Your price?” He asked the bookseller.
“The folio I hold here was owned by a gentleman whose misfortune is your fortune this day! I ask a mere £2. Possible that I may accept a bit less, even. A bargain for the gift of such brilliance, I assure you, sir! This you shall not regret!”
POST OFFICE TELEGRAPHS
HANDED IN AT THE KING’S CROSS OFFICE ON 1 Nov ‘73 RECEIVED HERE AT a.m. 10:34
TO} Sir George Guy Greville, Earl of Warwick
HAVE OBTAINED REQUESTED SHAKESPEARE FIRST FOLIO BOUND BY FRANCIS BEDFORD STOP
CHARGE OF £85 TO BE DELIVERED AT YOUR BEHEST PLEASE ADVISE STOP
Washington, D.C.: 1897
Dearest Mr. Folger,
I apologize for my extended delay in responding to the query in your previous letter. My research has taken an unexpected turn of which I am most excited to report. To continue our correspondence regarding the recent Warwick acquisition and the First Folio, I would like to summarize what we know so far, which is that though Mr. J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps assisted the Earl of Warwick in amassing his literary collection for twenty years after 1852, the Folio we now have in our possession was purchased in 1873 from the renowned bookseller Mr. Bernard Quaritch of London for the sum of £85. Unfortunately previous ownership is proving rather difficult to trace, but the inscription “Constanter” on the title page of the volume gives us a clue. My modest opinion is that this refers to a certain Constantine Huygens, who is a well known historical figure in the Netherlands. Huygens was a book collector and poet as well as an ambassador to many kings; you may know of his son Chistiaan Huygens, the brilliant mathematician and man of science. Sadly I am unable to confirm this as more than suspicion or hunch as I do not have much beyond circumstantial evidence. Yet still, if I may be frank, I have been rather vexed with the reception my assessment has garnered from the men on staff who apparently believe that this theory is worth nothing more than the daydream of an overly-educated and under-domesticated woman. They simply refuse to give the matter any serious debate or consideration. Someday maybe I will be vindicated (or perhaps proven wrong) but until then I will continue diligently in my study.
Please forward the included information in your correspondence with Mr. Sutherland and send my regards.
Affectionately Yours, Your Wife,
Emily Jordan Folger
Chicago: November 1965
Bill Towner shook hands with the late hotelier Louis H. Silver’s estate attorney. “University of Texas isn’t going to be happy about this,” the lawyer warned Towner.
“It’s a damn good thing they’re 1,000 miles away, then, huh?” Both men laughed. They made a mutually beneficial deal– Towner got the Louis H. Silver collection before Texas could approve the funding to buy it, and for less money, and the estate could wash its hands of the whole thing a lot sooner and with far less hassle.
“Silver was a Newberry trustee. He would have preferred it this way. The collection stays in Chicago. Stays in the Newberry.” Towner sounded more certain than he was. Technically speaking, he didn’t have $2,687,000- yet. He was going to have to sell off some of the library’s other holdings to raise the money. Hopefully it would be enough.
Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC: September 2012
“The cover doesn’t look like it’s from the 1600s.”
“That’s because they weren’t bound when they were purchased. Buyers paid to have them bound later. This one might have been done in the 1800s.”
“Then it’s not really the original book?”
“Yes, it is. It is original from the title page to the end page. There was no original cover when it was printed so the cover isn’t as important.”
“Do they know who owned this? Like, where do you get an original Shakespeare?”
“It says here they got it from the Earl of Warwick in 1897. Before he bought it from a book dealer in London, it was owned by a Dutch diplomat a long time ago. But they just found that out in 2009. See? It says ‘Constanter’ on the title page. That was his name. He also wrote ‘1647’, the year he bought it, but it faded so much, it was only found through UV light pictures. Other than that, they’re not sure who owned it.”
“Look at this! They scanned the pages so you can digitally flip through the book.”
“I love that. It’s on display and open to the public all year too; it’s not just part of the Open London exhibition. Everyone who comes to DC can see a First Folio up close.”
“Kind of amazing, the journey this book took to get here, if you think about it.”
Newberry Library, Chicago: October, 2012
A tiny silver-haired woman wearing a cream sweater and green polyester slacks shuffled into the exhibition room as her middle-aged son held the heavy glass door for her. She looked around at all the display cases, bewildered, until her son gently tugged her arm in the direction of a small table near the entrance of the room. “There’s a guest book,” he told her. She did not respond. He signed her name while she chose a magnifying glass from the bowl next to the visitor log. She turned it over and contemplated it for a moment before deciding it would be useful.
For awhile we were alone, the only visitors on a Wednesday afternoon, but we maintained a wide gulf as we circled the front exhibits, in that awkward way that strangers in public often do. I left the mother and son behind and tackled the room from the opposite direction they were headed. I was in search of the First Folio but not in a hurry to get there. I wanted to find the oldest items, the rarest, the oddest, and the most personal- journals written in the owner’s hand generations ago, a ketubah signed by a bride and groom unaware it would someday be a display piece, a prayer book worn on someone’s belt long before the city where it now resides even existed.
The case that housed the Shakespeare Folio also held a draft of Mary Wroth’s Urania, one of the earliest text versions of Voltaire’s Candide, and a first edition of Don Quixote. The Folio, like many other items in the exhibition, was once owned by local businessman Louis H. Silver. He bought this particular Folio from Bernard Quaritch Antiquarian Booksellers in 1928, almost forty years before the Newberry acquired it in an underhanded deal with his estate. The previous owner had left an inscription on the front page- “Robert Wynn: bodescalian”; another inscription to “Anne Park” precedes a verse about a broken heart. While I was lost in the past, imagining the hand that put that ink to paper, the old woman approached the case. I heard her murmur, “Oh, here it is.”
I pretended I was finished and moved towards another display, but I couldn’t help watching the woman. She was probably born around the time Silver bought that edition, I thought. Maybe she was a scholar. For a moment, watching her, I had the absurd thought that she was greeting the Folio as a long-lost lover or as if she was being reunited with a childhood friend. She peered into the case with her borrowed magnifying glass.
Then she was still for a long time, long enough for her son to shift his weight and look impatient, long enough to make me wonder if something had happened to her while she was pressed against the glass and neither her son nor I had noticed. She straightened, abruptly, to adjust her eyeglasses. Then she leaned forward again to study the words printed nearly 400 years ago in William Jaggard’s print shop.
To the Reader.
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut,
Wherein the Graver had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life :
O, could he but have drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face; the Print would then surpasse
All, that was ever writ in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his Booke.