8 November 2023
· As the First Folio turns 400, what didn’t happen at 397 ·
Happy 400th birthday to the big book. Pop a cork and raise a glass to my widow Eliza and my youngest daughter Susan. To Susan’s husband Phil and his brother Will, the incomparable Herbert brethren. Without all of them the book wouldn’t exist, and reputationally neither would I. Following my own lifetime the First Folio and its successors put my plays on the literary map and kept them there, though so far I remain the answer to the riddle inside the enigma. The mystery, such as it was, was solved in 1920.
Glass up again to Heminges and Condell, to Blount and the Jaggards. They did the legwork, they handled the manuscripts. They knew whose work they were reading. To Martin Droeshout and Ben Jonson for the clues they hid in plain sight. Clueless readers who continue to miss them can only blame themselves and their English professors.
A last glass to the devils who mixed the ink. To the compositors who set the type, even Leason the apprentice whose work is identifiable by how poor it is. To the pressmen who pulled the pages– over 900 per copy, times something like 750 copies. What a job this book was.
The words aren’t bad either.
In eight years I’ve written a handful of First Folio posts. Descriptions and links can be found at First Folioage. Before I get into my new story, a quick look back at 1623. Here’s the reason for the convention that the Folio came into the world on this date four centuries ago.
This is the page from the Stationers’ Register that includes the Folio’s entry, dated at the top 8° Novembris 1623. There’s your answer. The earliest surviving record of a purchase is 5 December. Close enough.
Other candidates for the title of this post:
- • The One That Got Away
- • Close But No Folio
- • Out, Damned Bug
- • F#CK
The following timeline took place in 2020. If you followed the blog back then there will be some familiar ground, but this isn’t just a rerun.
I learned that a fine copy of the First Folio, one of the last still in private hands, was slated to be auctioned at Christie’s in New York on 24 April. I began drafting a post, to put onto the blog nearer the date.
Offline, a disease so new it didn’t have a name was killing a lot of people in Wuhan, China.
Things got scary for friends in the western US after the bug now called SARS-CoV-2 crossed the Pacific. Section 3 in this post describes how the new virus disrupted a project I was involved with, if you’re up for a digression.
While working on my auction post, pages I was viewing at christies.com began to disappear. I watched as Christie’s took their entire schedule offline. I emailed them to learn whatever they could tell me.
My blog post –now rewritten and titled Diseases Desperate Growne– went up.
Christie’s emailed me a PDF of their promotional catalogue for the First Folio auction. 16 October was the rescheduled date.
The original auction date. Emails continued with Christie’s. I mentioned that, pre-postponement, I had been considering travelling to attend the auction. Now, though, all bets were off. Everyone might be dead by October. (Plagues give rise to morbid pessimism. I’d been through this before.) I registered as an online bidder. Well, why not. I thought it might allow me to follow the auction more closely, as long as I kept my cursor away from the bid button.
May – September:
Unless you were ill or caring for others, there wasn’t much going on. I read a lot.
No, not this one. Mine has a red cover
and is much less valuable.
A printed copy of the catalogue arrived by post. The date had been edited, the auction now set for 14 October. Wednesday instead of Friday.
6 October (Tuesday):
My contact at Christie’s apparently assumed I would be there. I received this email:
As our viewing opens this Saturday and runs through next Tuesday before the auction on Wednesday, I wanted to reach out and see if you would like me to book you an appointment to view the Folio in person.
The First Folio, the Christie’s specialist, and me. No bulletproof glass. No armed guard hovering at my shoulder, though he might be in the room. My hands gloved but able to hold the book, feel its weight, turn a page. My nose close enough to smell the ink, if there was any odour left after 397 years. I used to love the oily redolence of printer’s ink, the smell of words.
A no-brainer. Get moving. Make the trip to that other island.
New York in the pre-vaccine months of 2020. Corpses wrapped in bedsheet shrouds, stacked in chiller trucks because there were no more body bags and the morgues were full. Hospitals overflowing with the sick and dying. Doctors and nurses ill themselves, or suffering from traumatic stress and overwork. Hotels empty, restaurants closed. Public ground travel a risk. Air travel impossible or insane.
Long ago I lived through plague outbreaks. Not COVID-19 but the bug is a detail, dead is dead. 1563 and 1592 in London. Venice in 1575-76, a bad one that killed the old painter Titian soon after I left. I knew from experience: you flew from plague and prayed it did not follow you. You did not fly to it and flirt.
With regret so heavy it was hard to bear, I declined the invitation.
I posted my prologue, First Folio 1: Sell When You Can. I didn’t mention the invitation.
The auction. I watched the live video, but the book wasn’t even in the room. A screen on the wall was out of the camera frame, so all I saw was the auctioneer. The bidding was done via telephones, and it was over in seven minutes. Aside from the novelty of hearing multimillion-dollar bids go up in $200,000 increments, it was poor theatre.
The hammer falls at $8.4 million.
The buyer was an American dealer in rare books, Stephan Loewentheil. With Christie’s fee his bill came to $9,978,000. I posted my epilogue, First Folio 2: You Are Not For All Markets. I still didn’t mention the invitation.
Three years later the regret remains, though I’ve grown used to bearing it. The timing. The irony. The bloody bug. I will never have another chance like that. What I have instead is this story, saved for today.
I have something else too: the catalogue. I don’t think Christie’s should mind if I share the PDF now that Loewentheil’s cheque has cleared.
Click or right-click, open or save, etc.
- • PDF Note: I did not correct the catalogue cover inside the file, only the image above that links to it. The catalogue is cluelessly orthodox throughout, with Droeshout’s clueful engraving of you-know-who on the front. Nice photos though.
- • Banner: The plague in Shakespeare’s London [wellcomecollection.org]
- · by Frank Percy Wilson, 1927
- · Wellcome Collection
- • Stationers’ Register entry for the First Folio [folger.edu]
- · Shakespeare Documented [sic] online collection
- · Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, London
- · Liber D, 1620-1645, page 69
- · DOI 10.37078/435
- • Photo of the First Folio sold by Mills College and bought by Stephan Loewentheil, from the lot description at christies.com, which as of this posting date is still on their website.