FIRST FOLIO! Shadows of Shakespeare: Biographies of a Folio and a Forger

boy who would be shaspeare~posted by Carl

When William Shakespeare died in 1616, he was not yet the literary giant of the English language. His reputation grew over the centuries, following the development of the Shakespearean cult in the 18th century.

About seven years after Shakespeare died, his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell published the first collection of plays by the Bard. Previously, there had been bootlegged quarto editions (somewhat equivalent to our pocketbooks) of a few of the plays, containing many mistakes and problems.  The new collection, known to history as “The First Folio,” is the root source for our knowledge of the body of plays, and it is the only source for 18 plays, including Macbeth, The Tempest and Julius Caesar. The original printing was about a thousand copies. Bibliophiles believe there are 228 surviving copies. The going price when published was one pound (about $200 today). Copies today are worth between $9m-20m, making the Folio one of the most valuable collections of words ever compiled.

What would a hand-written manuscript be worth? So far, we don’t know, because a manuscript has never surfaced. The cult of Shakespeare grew enormously between the eras of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, fueled by the energy of the legendary David Garrick, 18th century man of the theatre. Desire for all things Shakespearean became an obsession for literary Britons. Suddenly the sleepy town of Stratford became a hub of tourism and souvenirs. Wills and deeds were searched for signatures and other information. The nascent industry of faking artifacts associated with Shakespeare was born.

The story of William-Henry Ireland, legal clerk and son of a book dealer, is now mostly forgotten although once well known. Ireland was a legal clerk with access to Elizabethan documents, and a self-taught forger.  He brought out document after document in the 1790s, all purporting to be original Shakespeare manuscripts. He claimed to have found them in a fusty old trunk shown to him by a mysterious Mr. H. Many of the greatest literary figures and scholars of the day fell for it. James Boswell, for example, the great biographer of Dr. Johnson, got down on his knees to kiss the relics, exclaiming he could now die happy.

Amazingly, the public believed it all, including a supposedly unknown Shakespeare play called “Vortigern and Rowena,” which Ireland claimed to have discovered. The play was staged by the leading figures of London theatre, amid raucous controversy. Ultimately, the hoax was exposed and Ireland fell into disrepute and obscurity.

Ireland’s story has been told many times over the decades. The tale of the forger makes for a real life mystery where only great reputations die. A recent book, The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale Of Forgery and Folly by Doug Stewart, is a fast-paced retelling. It examines Ireland’s relationship to his Shakespeare-obsessed father, and provides the historic context for that society’s desire to see Shakespeare’s works in his own hand.

book of williamWithout a genuine manuscript, the First Folio became instead the lodestone for collectors. It slowly achieved that status, since the publication of the Second and Third Folios consigned most of the now-treasured original Firsts to be resold and lost for mere shillings, perhaps for scrap paper or even dumped in the rubbish bin. You may shudder; I did. The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World by Paul Collins, tells the strangely compelling story of how these surviving individual copies came to be treasured and collected by wealthy and compulsive Shakespeareans. Henry Clay Folger, of Folger Shakespeare Library fame, acquired 79 copies. Collins set out to visit all the available copies of the folio, and in doing so, described the life and times of the first folio.

It is our lack of a manuscript that moves the “did Shakespeare write Shakespeare” movement, so beloved of figures ranging from Mark Twain to your local librarians. But that’s a tale for another day.

This post was originally published on June 7, 2010.

One thought on “FIRST FOLIO! Shadows of Shakespeare: Biographies of a Folio and a Forger”

  1. Those interested in the authorship question might be interested in the upcoming Derek Jacobi film entitled Anonymous, a thriller abot the ongoing debate over who write the plays of William Shakespeare- himself, or Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, Sir Francis, or Christopher Marlowe.

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