The Book of William

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Paul Collins’s The Book of William presents a literary history of William Shakespeare’s First Folio. One of the most valuable books in the world, its importance is represented among other places in Umberto Eco’s novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005). The novel’s narrator, a publisher who is unable to work and deeply in debt, suffers a massive stroke on discovering that his grandfather’s battered copy of Shakespeare’s plays is in fact a First Folio edition.

Such discoveries, though rare, are not unheard of. Since the first census of First Folios was taken in the mid-nineteenth century, new copies have turned up at the rate of about one per year. Some have been in attics, others in cupboards and storage sheds, and a few out in the open in uncatalogued private libraries. Rumors of still others emerge periodically, to be pursued by any number of booksellers and collectors.

Collins reveals that, to date, some 230 copies of the First Folio have been identified, and their individual flaws and markings have been noted in great detail. There must be an upper limit to those remaining to be found since the print run of the 1623 publication was limited by statute to two thousand copies and most of those were probably consumed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. It is increasingly rare for a First Folio to be sold on the open market, and the asking price is likely to increase. When a private library in London put its copy up for auction in 2006, the book sold for a record 2.5 million pounds, the equivalent at the time of 8 million dollars. The auctioneer remarked that the sum represented approximately one-third of the library’s net worth; the librarian said the proceeds would make it possible to preserve the library’s eight thousand other rare books.

Collins attended the auction, fascinated by the allure of old books and determined to write a popular history of Shakespeare’s First Folio. The title of his book is well chosen, for this first posthumous edition of Shakespeare’s plays is as close as one can come to the words as he wrote them. It was edited by two surviving shareholders in the King’s Men, the acting company that made Shakespeare a rich man. The texts were based on acting copies in the company’s possession, not on the pirated copies printed during the author’s lifetime, and they included a good many plays that might otherwise have been lost. Many literature students purchase the Norton facsimile of the First Folio to see how Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw the text, and some actors use the Applause facsimile to eliminate the stage directions, scene descriptions, and other insertions that have been made over the centuries.

Collins’s subtitle, on the other hand, is pure hyperbole, as the author would be the first to concede. First Folios are bargains compared to paintings by Rembrandt or Vincent Van Gogh. Even in the world of printed books, the First Folio sold at Sotheby’s is not the most valuable book known. A Gutenberg Bible, for example, has sold for 3.3 million pounds, and a first edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) has commanded 4.7 million pounds. However, a more accurate subtitle, more strictly limited to the auction that Collins attended, would be much longer, and he intends his book to be accessible to a wide reading public.

Collins strikes a breezy tone, contracting words when, for example, he shows sympathy for “every high schooler who’s suffered through a Shakespeare assignment.” He uses such vernacular adjectives as “dorky” and “legit”; calls Shakespeare’s hometown a “tourist trap” (as may well be the case); and calls the playwright “Bill” (as was not the case: until the nineteenth century, the standard nickname for William was “Will,” and Shakespeare punned on that name in Sonnet 130). He notes that the folio’s editors divided the plays into acts and scenes, in the manner of Roman plays studied in grammar schools such as the one Shakespeare attended briefly. They thus gave a classical appearance to comedies and tragedies originally organized by scene alone. Collins follows suit, dividing his book into acts and scenes rather than chapters and sections. By adapting the five-act structure of the Shakespearean drama, he makes it easy for readers familiar with Shakespeare to grasp the overall structure of his story.

“Act I” is set in London and describes the auction at Sotheby’s interspersed with portrayals of the print shop of William Jaggard and son, where the First Folio was produced. Collins provides details of the paper Jaggard chose for the job and of the folio format in general. The section also includes information about the second, third, and fourth folios that followed Jaggard’s 1623...

(The entire section is 1964 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 21 (July 1, 2009): 13.

Commonweal 136, no. 17 (October 9, 2009): 24.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 9 (May 1, 2009): 69.

Library Journal 134, no. 10 (June 1, 2009): 100.

The New York Times Book Review, October 4, 2009, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 18 (May 4, 2009): 42.