Fingering Shakespeare's First Drafts

"There is a history in all men's lives," William Shakespeare wrote, and there are few better places to find out about his life and legacy than the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Host Scott Simon visits the library with Weekend Edition's literary detective, Paul Collins, for a look into the vaults that hold early Shakespeare folios.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

I'm going to talk like this a little bit now because we're in a very famous library. You know, Shakespeare once said, There is a history in all men's lives. His own history was not the least of that. There are few better places to find out about the life and legacy of William Shakespeare than at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where I happen to be now, in Washington, D.C.

We're right in front of the vault of the library. I wouldn't call it exactly Al Capone's vault, but let's find out what's in here. We couldn't think of a better guide than our own literary detective, Paul Collins.

Paul, it's nice to be with you.

PAUL COLLINS: Oh, it's good to be here.

SIMON: And Gail Paster is director of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

GAIL PASTER: Welcome to the Folger.

SIMON: Thank you very much. Am I talking quietly enough?

PASTER: Well, we're not in the presence of readers...

SIMON: Okay.

PASTER: ...so I think we're - we could shout if we want.

SIMON: Okay. In the presence of a vault. And you have the keys to that vault, right?

PASTER: I do. I have them right here in my hand.

SIMON: Okay.

PASTER: So, come along.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL AND FOOTSTEPS)

PASTER: They're kept in the dark. What you see in these two rooms is the largest collection of books printed in early modern England. And straight ahead of you, as you'll see, shelves where the books lie flat, and that is our collection of the Shakespeare First folios, which is the largest collection in the world.

SIMON: So are these the complete works of Shakespeare, as we know them today?

COLLINS: Just about. They are 36 plays in here and four are missing. And of those, "Cardenio" and "Love's Labour's Won" are still missing.

PASTER: "Macbeth."

SIMON: Oh, my word.

PASTER: "As You Like It," "Julius Caesar." These are plays that are folio- only plays.

SIMON: So we might've missed life is but a foolish player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more, a tale told by (unintelligible) idiot - often referred to as me in our family - full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, if it weren't for these folios?

PASTER: What would William Faulkner have done to title his books if it hadn't been for "Macbeth"?

COLLINS: There are many plays from back then that we only have the titles of, so it wouldn't have been a particularly unusual thing had these not been saved for those plays to have vanished. Shakespeare didn't exactly go out of his way to preserve his work. He was, you know, he was running a theater. He was a busy guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPERS RUSTLING)

PASTER: They all have numbers. This is copy number one.

COLLINS: This is the folio that Henry Folger described as the most precious book in the world - this specific copy.

SIMON: You're just holding it there, Gail, like it's a loaf of bread or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PASTER: I'm holding it carefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PASTER: I have washed my hands and I'm going to cradle it in my arms, although technically I should be cradling it in a book cradle.

SIMON: The engraving of the barge picture - Mr. William Shakespeare's comedies, histories and tragedies, published according to the true original copies, in Old English spelling, London 1623.

Forgive a vulgar question here - is there any way of putting a price tag on this?

PASTER: On this book?

SIMON: Yeah.

PASTER: Yes. The way to do it would be to put it up for auction. But, of course that's not going to happen. So the record-breaking valuation of a recent book that was - a recent first folio that was in extremely good condition was over $6 million. So that gives you some sense of the value of this book.

COLLINS: When it first came out, it was about a pound, depending on how you got it. This particular copy, when they found it, it in was in the hands of a guy name Coningsby Sibthorp. And he had a large - a fairly large library that he wasn't paying a lot of attention to. He had a book dealer come up from London. As they were looking around the property, there was an out building, there was a granary. The dealer decided, oh, look out there and see if there's anything there. They found this. It was bound up with some twine, actually...

SIMON: Oh, my word.

COLLINS: ...on top of an old shelf. And a servant on the property, when he was pulling this down, the dealer was pulling this down, said, Oh, that is no good, it's only old poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Tough critic, huh?

COLLINS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Boy. And now there's another folio that you've taken out too.

PASTER: This is copy number 42.

SIMON: Is that a latte stain on the cover?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: You know, actually, one of the other ones that we have here has...

SIMON: Mead stain, probably. Yeah.

COLLINS: One of the other ones that we have here has, I'm pretty certain, a strawberry jam stain. Samuel Johnson, actually, his first folio, is full of food stains. The next owner that had it after him said, I've repeatedly met with thin flakes of pie crust between its pages. So, yeah...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: He's a man who lived large.

COLLINS: Yes.

SIMON: I feel a sneeze coming out and I don't want it to cost $6 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: (Unintelligible)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: A terrible thought occurred to me. Is that a stain? No, that's actually where Mr. Simon sneezed.

PASTER: Just another part of the history of the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, what's wonderful - I mean about seeing everything - is to remind ourselves these didn't begin as almost religious objects of reverence, but books that people read. Shakespeare, oh, I like him. He's funny.

COLLINS: The very first folio I looked at had all these like children's drawings in it and I was really kind of shocked the first time I saw that. And since then I've seen that in a number of folios.

PASTER: Like what?

SIMON: Those are - those are children's drawings.

COLLINS: Yes, we're looking at...

SIMON: Oh, my word...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PASTER: This is copy number 78, and a little girl has drawn on right underneath Hugh Hollins' dedicatory poem.

COLLINS: Oh, gosh.

PASTER: That's adorable.

COLLINS: She's pretty good.

PASTER: Not bad.

SIMON: Looks like a family dinner scene that she's...

PASTER: Elizabeth Oakle(ph). Her book, 7029, then she's drawn a little checkerboard.

COLLINS: And that's actually just about the exact right time for someone to be scribbling. It was not long after that that critics started looking at the first folio and the thing about the first folio is it's the only edition to be edited by people who knew Shakespeare - who had actually worked with him. It took about a century, but people eventually realized that makes it special.

SIMON: I want to wind up with a truly Neanderthal question, but I think standing here - inspired, moved, and amused in all the right ways as I am by seeing these folios - it's something that would run through peoples minds: Why have a vault? Why have special humidifier? Why go through all this trouble to keep these copies available for history when the words are important? We know the words. You can - you can buy the words in a, you know, 12.95 paperback.

PASTER: Well, it seems to be that what you get when you open up a copy of the folio and you find a scribble by Elizabeth Oakle writing in her book, that you've a direct connection with readers, and our vault is full of books with marginalia, notations, responses to reading. Those are the things that make each of these objects, particularly in the hand press period, unique. And you get a sense of connection to prior readers, prior minds, that the digital copy will not - will not provide.

COLLINS: That's what I often think of, you know, as more and more books move to a digital format - I love working in stuff in a digital format. For any researcher it's a tremendous boon. But I'm also always keenly aware that these books have held up for the better part of 400 years now.

SIMON: Digital media may not.

COLLINS: I mean, over the course of hundreds of years, nobody is really sure how it's going to hold up, but we know that these will.

SIMON: Well, thank you both very much for letting us into the vault. Paul Collins is our literary detective, author of "The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered The World." And Gail Paster is director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Can we get out of this vault?

PASTER: I have the key.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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