Books

Rare Shakespeare Folio Discovered in France

Given that he died nearly 400 years ago, it's perhaps unsurprising that genuine Shakespeare news is rare - but there was an exciting development in a small library near Calais this week.

A previously unknown first folio was discovered at the St. Omer public library, bringing the world's known total of surviving examples to 233. It was discovered during a search through the library's collections for material suitable for an English-language literature exhibition. It had previously been classified as an unexceptional old edition - its title page and some introductory material is missing - but an American professor, an expert on Shakespeare, was called in to take a look, and identified it as a first folio.

Professor Eric Rasmussen, of the University of Nevada said of the discovery, “This is huge. First folios don’t turn up very often, and when they do, it’s usually a really chewed up, uninteresting copy. But this one is magnificent.”

The book contains 36 plays and was part of a print run of just 800 copies in 1623. It is considered the only reliable text for half of his plays and is so rare and valued that the last one sold, in 2006, went for $6.8m (£4.3m).

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The library inherited their copy from a long-defunct Jesuit college and it will fuel debate over the author's place in, and connection to, Catholic culture, while others will be looking forward to studying the minute differences from other first folios; each one has tiny alterations and changes. This particular copy features handwritten notes which could give clues to how the plays were performed at the time. For example, in one scene in Henry IV, the word “hostess” is changed to “host” and “wench” to “fellow”, which points towards a performance where a female character was turned into a male. Professor Rasmussen commented that “I’ve never seen this kind of gender switch in a Shakespeare folio.”

Rémy Cordonnier, the director of the library’s medieval and early modern collection said: “It was very emotional to realise we had a copy of one of the most famous books in the world. I was already imagining the reaction it would cause.”

(Images: Getty)

[via New York Times]