Collectors’ fantasy Christmas present it may have become, but Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was a series of headaches before it was anything else. Despite the confidently comprehensive title they gave it, the editors of the First Folio, John Heminges and Henry Condell, were defeated by the task of assembling all of their late colleague’s plays: we will never know how many nights’ sleep they lost over their failure to secure a copy of Love’s Labour’s Won, written before 1598 and printed in quarto before 1603, nor what arguments led to the exclusion not just of all Shakespeare’s poems and the single scene he wrote for Sir Thomas More but of three late collaborative plays, Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio. (The sorry consequences are clear enough, however: namely, the survival of Pericles only in an abominably printed and unreliable quarto and the permanent loss of both Love’s Labour’s Won and Cardenio.) Of the plays they were able to track down, not all reached the printers on time – Troilus and Cressida came too late even to be listed on the contents page – and many gave both publishers and typesetters considerable trouble. Some of the copy consisted of printed texts of plays that had already been published individually, causing all sorts of copyright problems, and many of these had been covered in intricate marginal scribblings and interleavings and strikings-out to bring them up to date with subsequent revisions (not all of them authorial), annotations which in some instances baffled the compositors. Of the plays supplied in manuscript, some of them in Shakespeare’s own handwriting, five or six seem to have been sufficiently difficult to decipher for the publishers to commission the professional scribe Ralph Crane to prepare fresh transcripts, and even these were sometimes misread during typesetting. Judging from this, from Shakespeare’s signatures on legal documents, and from the few holograph pages we have of his scriptwriting (part of his contribution to Sir Thomas More), the claim in Heminges and Condell’s prefatory epistle that Shakespeare’s ‘mind and hand went together, and what he thought he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers’ seems to have been merely conventionally figurative praise of the author’s facility rather than a literal description of his foul papers.
Nor did Heminges and Condell’s difficulties end with the provision of usable and legible copies of Shakespeare’s scripts. There were tricky decisions to be made, about the order in which the plays should appear, for example. Foregrounding those which hadn’t been printed before was clearly a priority (thus the comedies section starts with The Tempest and the tragedies with Coriolanus), but the editors’ decision to classify the whole canon by genre created problems as well as solving them. Their strategy of grouping all the plays about English history, whether comic or tragic in structure, and placing them in chronological order by subject-matter, all neatly titled after the name of the appropriate reigning monarch, made Shakespeare’s contributions to the development of the chronicle play look a lot tidier than might otherwise have been the case. (The plays their author had known as The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, Richard Duke of York and All Is True, for example, reappeared as, respectively, Henry VI Parts 2 and 3 and Henry VIII.) Pre-Christian British kings, however, though just as solemnly vouched for by Holinshed’s Chronicles, weren’t seen to count as historical: the play originally printed as The History of King Lear had to be reclassified as a tragedy (just as the erstwhile tragedies of Richard II and Richard III became histories), and was joined by Cymbeline, despite that play’s competing affinities with history and with comedy. Other potential anomalies abounded: Troilus, at one time scheduled for inclusion in the middle of the tragedies, and described both as a comedy and as a history in its quarto incarnation, finally wound up adrift between the tragedies and the histories.
The arrangement of the plays aside, there was the picture on the title page to sort out. It was commissioned from a mediocre Flemish engraver called Martin Droeshout, who worked either from a now-lost portrait painted during the author’s lifetime (perhaps by Richard Burbage), or perhaps just from a proto-identikit sketch prepared by his surviving colleagues (the engraving is bad enough to support either hypothesis). There were also commendatory poems to solicit and obtain, from the likes of the notoriously touchy and unco-operative Ben Jonson, who had to be prevailed on to compose a little eulogy about how marvellously good a likeness of Shakespeare was provided by the dubious engraving. There were also two completely contradictory dedications to write, one assuring the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery that the book owed its existence entirely to their feudal patronage, and the other telling ‘the Great Variety of Readers’ that it was a commercial venture, dependent solely on their purses: ‘read and censure . . . but buy it first . . . whatever you do, buy.’
By the time they got to the stage of composing this famous blurb, Heminges and Condell, actors with no previous experience of publishing, must have learned more than they had ever wanted to know about the economics of the book business. At 907 pages, the Folio’s production had had to be underwritten by a syndicate of hitherto rival publishers, specially assembled for the project, and what with all the last-minute complications with the copy and the sheer scale of the volume (together with some fiddly details, such as the woodcut ornaments placed at the beginnings and ends of plays), the book’s preparation took up valuable labour and resources in the workshops of William and Isaac Jaggard for the best part of two years. It was first advertised in the catalogue of the Frankfurt Book Fair as due out in mid-1622, but the title page in the end bore the date 1623, and the final copies weren’t completed until early 1624. Taking into account all the print-shop labour and the ink and paper used, each copy must have cost about 6s. 8d. to produce, and they were marked up to a London retail price of somewhere between 15s. (unbound) and £1 (in plain calf). These figures might have been greater had the Jaggards felt the market would stand them: as it was, they economised as far as they could, employing at least one inept apprentice among the compositors (responsible, among other things, for typesetting Macbeth, with dismaying results), and choosing not to waste any folio sheets on which they had noticed errors during printing – they corrected as they went along, but used the misprinted pages anyway.
The First Folio was excellent value: it provided, unbound, 36 plays in folio for the price of 30 in quarto, and offered the only available texts of 16 plays that hadn’t previously appeared in quarto, including Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. However, in part as a result of the Jaggards’ economies, it has not been the best place to read Shakespeare’s plays since 1632, when the second edition, the Second Folio, appeared. The second edition corrects many more errors than it commits, and as well as carefully reprinting everything in the First Folio contributes some desirable new material to its preliminaries (including a sonnet, ‘On Shakespeare’, which is the first published work by John Milton and thus a collector’s item in its own right). The 1663-64 Third Folio added not just Pericles (sadly, in a text derived only from its wickedly bad quarto) but six more good plays too (admittedly, six plays which no one now believes Shakespeare to have written, but good plays nonetheless, among them Middleton’s The Puritan and A Yorkshire Tragedy). At the same price as its predecessors, the Third Folio offered even better value, and its superiority was immediately recognised by the Bodleian Library, which promptly sold off the copy of the First Folio which the Jaggards had deposited in 1624 and invested in this edition instead. Given that they could only countenance having a single copy of this irreligious and unedifying volume on their shelves, this was an eminently sensible thing for Bodley’s librarians to do – though their successors came to rue it in 1905, when the Library’s former copy of F1 turned up in private hands and the Bodleian felt obliged to buy it back for around £3000.
That, needless to say, is a great deal to pay for a book which your predecessors recognised was obsolete two and a half centuries ago. It is the increasingly fancy sums which this awkwardly assembled and unevenly printed volume has commanded which preoccupy the first volume of Anthony James West’s The Shakespeare First Folio: The History of the Book, and they provide a very remarkable instance of the interplay between literature and the market, prompting all sorts of reflections on the curious relations between cultural capital and the real kind. Morbid bibliophilia alone cannot explain this book’s ever-escalating price: some copies of F1 were traded by collectors not long after it was published, and at first the sums for which they changed hands weren’t by any means exorbitant. One side-effect of the Jaggards’ penny-pinching way with proof corrections is that no two copies of the First Folio are exactly the same, and one chagrined consumer seems to have noticed this as early as the late 1620s. John Buxton, a theatregoing former student of Gray’s Inn, bought a Folio at around the time of his marriage in 1627 (when he was about 20), and his account book records that he subsequently paid 6s. ‘for the changing of Shakespheares works for on[e] that is perfect’. It may be that he was simply swapping a stained or dog-eared copy for a fresher, but given Buxton’s enthusiasm for printed plays (he bought at least fifty in quarto, at 6d. a time), it seems more likely that this exchange was motivated by a desire that his copy of this large and conspicuous volume should contain as few misprints as possible. Assuming that Buxton bought his first copy of the First Folio new and unbound for 15s., his total outlay on finally securing a satisfactory Shakespeare First Folio was a guinea – the same amount of money that he and his wife, setting up house in Norfolk in 1629, spent at Stourbridge fair on a close-stool, a pan and a preserving pan, and just a shilling more than they laid out on equipping themselves with four useful skillets.
For the same sum, according to West’s figures, the Buxtons could have bought 46 loaves of bread, and measured against this index the going rate for a First Folio didn’t change much for over a century. Around the 1750s, though, something absolutely extraordinary began to happen to F1’s perceived value, something which hasn’t finished happening yet. In 1756 a copy fetched £3 3s., 105 loaves; over the following decade the usual cost rose to more like that of 200 loaves; and by the 1790s the average price of a First Folio had risen to about £35, the equivalent of nearly 900 loaves. By the middle of the 19th century, though the Consumer Price Index had fallen (and the price of a loaf had remained the same, still about fivepence halfpenny), the cost of a Folio had gone on rising, to 5000 loaves, and when the Consumer Price Index started to escalate dramatically around 1950 this particular corner of the antiquarian book trade was more than ready to outstrip it entirely. In 1960 a copy of the First Folio fetched £26,473; in 1978 another was bought for £76,923; and in 1989 one fetched £691,040. That’s enough to feed the five thousand hundreds of loaves each, and still leave plenty over to spend on the fishes, not to mention more skillets to fry them in than the Buxtons could have got through in several lifetimes. On 8 October, Christie’s, despite the disruptions caused to their auction schedules by the terrorist attacks, went ahead with its sale of the library of Abel E. Berland, and from the level of brittle excitement in its New York salerooms it immediately became clear that the records charted by West were about to be shattered, that far from falling as they did at the outbreak of the Second World War, Folio prices were about to soar to new heights. A perfect copy of F1, once owned by John Dryden’s niece, fetched not the $2-3m optimistically predicted in the catalogue but a well-nigh unimaginable $6,166,000, or £4,166,216. This is more than six times the previous record, or about 12 million loaves of bread. A Second Folio and a Third also fetched twice the catalogue’s estimates, at $281,000 and $556,000 respectively. Needless to say, Christie’s aren’t revealing who paid these sums. Let us hope that West is on the case: it would be very interesting to know whether the money rushing so eagerly into 17th-century literature was in flight from airline shares, or had just been realised from the sales of cruise missiles. Bush’s war on terrorism may yet go down in history as the first during which anxious plutocrats put their liquid assets into Folios instead of stuffing the heels of their shoes with uncut diamonds.
All this for a book which has comparatively little scarcity value – about 750 copies were probably printed, of which at least 228 survive – and which has a use value, for most normal purposes, inferior to almost any other extant collected edition of Shakespeare. (Few, if any, set as much verse as prose or elongate as much prose into pseudo-verse to fit the size of pages, or confuse or omit as many speech prefixes, or fluff as many exits and entrances, as the First Folio, handsome though it looks.) If you want a readable text of Shakespeare, as full and accurate as all the early editions reasonably permit, you would be far better advised to invest in a paperback copy of the Oxford edition (at £11.99) than in a copy of F1 (at up to something like 400,000 times as much).
The contribution West’s book makes to our knowledge of this freak of bibliographic, literary and economic history is enormous. The son of a master printer, he emerges from these two hundred minutely researched pages as an über-anorak among Folio-spotters, setting out an astonishing quantity of triple-checked information about bindings and auctions and economic trends in a manically rational profusion of graphs and tables. This dense statistical biography of F1, furthermore, is only the first instalment of a projected four. Its immediate sequel will offer a census of all known copies (the first attempted since Sir Sidney Lee’s in 1902, and a good deal more ambitious in scope), and, as the definitive source of information about the condition, provenance, binding and whereabouts of each extant specimen of F1, it will presumably be seized on at once as the bible of the up-market contract book thief. West’s third instalment, based on worldwide house-calls on each of these precious books, will supply a thick bibliographic description of every copy (an impressive sample account of four appeared in the Library in 1999), and his fourth will provide a cultural history of the Folio since 1623.
On the evidence of this volume, it is the last projected instalment, scheduled to offer some intellectual perspective on the Folio-rush phenomenon about which he has amassed so many facts, that West is least qualified to write. His main analytical comment here on the reason the cost of a Folio began to skyrocket in the 1750s, for example, is to the effect that around this time Shakespearean scholars first recognised F1’s primacy over the later folios for anyone seriously interested in Shakespeare’s text (in part because F1’s uncorrected errors offer richer clues as to the copy which lay behind it). But consumer interest among Shakespearean editors, the only tiny social group for whom the possession of F1 might remotely be considered a utilitarian matter, cannot go very far towards explaining the rise and continuing rise in the prices fetched by the Folio. It is true that Pope, Theobald, Hanmer, Capell, Dr Johnson, Steevens and Malone all did their bit for demand by treating themselves to copies at some time or another, but so did many other people far less qualified to savour its press-variants or tut-tut over its instances of mislineation. The book’s cost, moreover, has continued to soar regardless of the drastic fall in the incomes of those best able to appreciate its finer points. Furness and Halliwell-Phillipps in the 19th century were the very last gentleman-critics who could afford to keep a Folio in the style to which these pampered, much-rebound volumes had by then become accustomed: none of the 20th-century scholars who between them did more than any of their forebears to enhance our understanding of how F1 was produced – W.W. Greg, Charlton Hinman and their living heir, Peter Blayney – ever owned a copy. The current respective valuations placed on F1 and on the labour of those who study it, indeed, make painfully obvious the independence of the Folio’s price from the scholarly industry on which West implies its value partly depends. If I (to take a handy example) had to edit a new complete edition of Shakespeare’s plays (from which may God preserve both me and them) and wanted a First Folio of my very own from which to do so, it would take me more than 120 years to save up the asking price, and that’s if I spent nothing and paid no tax in the meantime. Even that calculation does not allow for the fact that Folio prices generally rise much faster than inflation, while academic salaries have lagged disastrously behind it for years.
Shakespeare’s editors don’t need to own a copy any more, however. Quite apart from the high percentage of real copies which are in public collections and available for examination (201 of the known 228), facsimiles have been available for nearly two centuries: the first, which came out as early as 1807, was admittedly a mess (though Keats loved it), but Hinman’s Norton facsimile (1968), especially in its second edition with a new introduction by Blayney (1996), is sufficiently reliable for most academic purposes, and at £120, some British university libraries may be able to afford it. You can even obtain a mock Folio of your own in paperback for a mere £30 or so (Routledge, 1998), though you have to tolerate a deeply sentimental and misleading introduction by an American method-actor called Doug Moston, who claims that F1’s punctuation, spelling and capitalisation do not merely reflect the arbitrary preferences of different scribal and compositorial intermediaries but constitute intensely personal instructions from Shakespeare to his actors. If you have more patience with computers than with luvvies, you would be much better advised to download digitised scans of the whole Folio from the Arden CD-Rom (though since it costs £2500 you might as well carry on saving up for the real thing). Or you could obtain virtual copies of different specimens of F1 over the Web for nothing, courtesy of MIT (shea.mit.edu), Tufts (www.perseus.tufts.edu) and the University of Pennsylvania (www.library.upenn.edu/etext/collections/furness).
Why, then, has this now sublimely useless commodity been fetishised to such an extent? One partial answer is that during the 18th century the Folio became the holy book of a new secular religion, bardolatry, and, more broadly, came to represent the Protestant humanism within which that faith took shape. It is more than a mere curiosity that the Folio should be one of the few non-religious books of which there is a marble statue on public display in Britain (part of the monument to Heminges and Condell in Love Lane in the City of London, erected in 1896), and that even the ashes of one copy destroyed by fire should still be kept on reverent display in a glass case. West meticulously puts together little charts plotting the relative valuations placed on the Folio and the Gutenberg Bible over time, largely to show that the latter is one of the only commodities to have outperformed Shakespeare as a long-term investment, but he doesn’t seem to get the point that the reason both these books have continued to do so well is that both have been natural destinations for the excess profits of Anglophone millionaires, keen to own symbolic capital in the Wasp culture in which they have flourished. With ‘whatever you do, buy’ as one of its introductory slogans, F1 could hardly be more suitable as a means for such plutocrats to endorse and propagate that culture. A very large part of the history which West’s book traces is actually that of American corporate philanthropy: the surviving Folios have migrated over time from private collections in Britain to privately endowed public ones in North America. In 1902, of 158 known copies, 100 were in the UK, 39 in the USA; today, of 228, there are 44 in Britain and 145 in the States. One of the reasons Charlton Hinman was able to produce his astonishingly detailed studies of the Folio’s printing process without possessing a copy of his own, and at the same time one of the reasons the price of the book had risen so far beyond his personal reach by the time he did this, was that between 1893 and 1928 Henry Clay Folger, president of Standard Oil, bought no fewer than 79 of the things (fired in part by a desire to outdo Henry Huntington, who consoled himself by snapping up a slightly wider range of quartos for his own collection in California). In the 1950s and early 1960s Hinman was thus able to compare a third of all extant examples of F1 at once, a task so immense that he had to invent a simple optical device, the Hinman Collating Machine, to help him (a device through which bibliographers have been squinting painfully ever since). He did this, of course, at Folger’s monument, the Folger Shakespeare Library, which had opened in 1932 on a site in the middle of Washington DC carefully selected to be on the line that joins the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Capitol and the Supreme Court – as if to write bardolatry into the American Constitution itself.
The Folger, the establishment of which guaranteed America’s pre-eminence as a home for Shakespearean textual studies, is only the most spectacular example of the trend for that country’s 19th and early 20th-century capitalists to make F1 a high-prestige bequest to their fellow-citizens – or, to put it more cynically, a commodity of choice for humanist money-launderers. The Widener Library at Harvard is another such temple, based on the Folio-centred legacy of Harry Elkins Widener, who went down with the Titanic on his way home from a book-shopping trip to London; the Yale Elizabethan Club, which astonishingly owns samples of every single pre-1660 edition of Shakespeare except Q1 Venus and Adonis, is another; but such instances are by no means confined to the more obviously Anglophile eastern seaboard. Far away in south central Indiana, for example, can be found the Lilly Library, an Albert Speer-style Neoclassical limestone bunker funded by the multinational pharmaceuticals corporation which manufactures Prozac. Here, at a university of little other interest except to basketball fans, are interned rarely disturbed copies not just of F1 but of all four successive Shakespeare Folios, together with the mandatory Gutenberg Bible – not to mention such other treasured cornerstones of Western civilisation as Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s personal copy of the Beaumont and Fletcher folio, the manuscript of Woolf’s Orlando, and an annotated authorial typescript of Goldfinger. Thus have the sacred totems of the tribe passed into the hands of the barbarians. Starting in the 1960s Folios also began to sidle off to Japan, where there are now 15 copies, some of which were bought from owners in the US: this is largely the result of an ambitious buying spree by Meisei University (which owns 12 of them), brought to a (temporary?) end by the economic stagnation of the 1990s. I suppose it’s just possible that over another four centuries the wheels of economic fortune may roll them another few thousand miles westwards, so that all this Shakespeare could yet arrive back in London, but it isn’t going to happen any time soon. Luckily, as F1 assures us, he was not of an age, but for all time, so perhaps there’s no hurry.
What can a Folio be worth in Japan? What does it mean for a Japanese institution to buy copies of the holy book of Anglophone humanism from Americans, within a few years of Hiroshima? For West, these questions don’t arise, since beyond its scholarly value he understands F1 to function primarily as a simple, universally recognised luxury item or status symbol. One of his more fanciful tables compares the rising prices of the Folio over the course of the 20th century with those of a top-of-the-line Purdey shotgun, two ounces of Russian caviar and the most expensive two-seater Jaguar. Are these four commodities really comparable, though? Has any individual ever cultivated a taste for all four, apart from Lord Peter Wimsey? Nor does West’s comparison of Folio sales to those of Old Master paintings quite work: this isn’t a Benjaminesque case of the authentic work of art being hypervalued in an age of mechanical reproduction. When you own Van Gogh’s Sunflowers you own the unique thing (even if it is fading a lot faster than some cheap copies), but a copy of the Folio is just one instance of something that was mass-produced in the first place, and which has at best an ambiguous relationship to any imagined unique holograph. (As its title page proclaims, in what to post-Romantic ears can only sound like a paradox, the Folio was ‘Published according to the True Originall Copies’.) Most other books are wildly undervalued rather than overvalued: words published in a book are felt so strongly to be already in the public domain that few customers feel any shame about treating bookshops as if they were public libraries, and many feel outraged if an expert’s life’s work is offered for sale at more than twenty quid a time. How can anyone have had the nerve to ask $6,166,000 for a copy of the works of Shakespeare, which are anyway felt to be the common property of the English-speaking world and beyond ?
A slightly sentimental answer might be that the value of getting your name onto a Folio’s flyleaf is directly related to the exponentially increasing amount of pleasure that has been derived elsewhere from its contents: the more readers there are who have been delighted by cheap reprints of Shakespeare, the more rare book auctioneers can go on raising the bidding on F1 as the magical fount from which their pleasure has flowed. (In a perhaps analogous fashion, the material investment required to buy a picturesque cottage in the Lake District presumably bears some relation to the number of people who just visit the area but have an affective investment in it as their favourite place.) Put more resentfully, perhaps it’s the emotional and intellectual investment in Shakespeare made by the countless millions who can only afford paperbacks that keeps the price of Folios up for the illiterate and not-so-illiterate fat cats who can afford to trade them as if they were so much bullion. West, however, though not a Folio owner himself, has by his scholarly labours on Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies managed to achieve a feat beyond the means of any Folger or Goldfinger, one which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to attain by mere purchase. He has succeeded, ingeniously, in getting his name permanently attached to every single known copy. After the publication of his census next year, every copy of the First Folio will be known for ever by its West Number.