Early Shakespeare Folio Auctioned for Millions
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One writer whose words have come down through the years, happily unchanged, is Shakespeare.
(Soundbite of "Romeo and Juliet")
Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As Juliet) Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?
MONTAGNE: A rare first edition of Shakespeare's complete plays was auctioned off today in London, fetching $5 million. The First Folio, as it's titled, was printed in 1623 and still has its original binding of brown calfskin.
We called Peter Selley, director and English literature expert at Sotheby's, which held the auction, to find out why the collection is worth such an astonishing sum.
Mr. PETER SELLEY (Senior Director, English Literature Specialist, Sotheby's): Well, the First Folio is the most important book in English literature, and together with the King James Bible, published, they are the texts which have contributed more than any other texts to the English language.
MONTAGNE: You have there at Sotheby's, the folio. Tell us what it looks like.
Mr. SELLEY: It's a remarkable sight, because most copies of the First Folio have been rebound, so they are in later bindings. One of the great things about this copy is that it's in a near contemporary binding; that is, a mid-17th century binding. In fact, there are no other copies complete with all the text leaves of all the plays in a mid-17th century binding like this, in private hands.
MONTAGNE: And early owners wrote notes in the margins?
Mr. SELLEY: That's right, yeah, and that's another very interesting thing about this copy. There are a number of markings in the margins, which give us an indication of how a contemporary reader read Shakespeare.
So you see, for instance, the to be or not to be speech marked up. Clearly, that was rated very much at the time, as it's rated now. But there are other notes in another hand, including a rather coarse note at the end of Hamlet, where someone has written in a late 17th century hand, But I desire the readers mouth to kiss the writer's (bleep). So that's a rather amusing note there.
MONTAGNE: And without these first folios, we would not now have some of Shakespeare's greatest plays. Macbeth, The Tempest...
Mr. SELLEY: That's the key thing about the First Folio. Eighteen of Shakespeare's plays would have been lost for all time because the manuscripts which were used by Hemmings and Condell, Shakespeare's fellow actors, in putting the folio together, have all been lost, with the exception of three pages in a collaborative play which is preserved in the British library. But nothing else survived.
MONTAGNE: Well, with the sale of this folio, is it pretty likely that it, too, will be lost to the public? Till now it's been a private collection that's been open to the public.
Mr. SELLEY: I think this whole question is a bit more complex than it's often given credit for, because just as the other great playwright and critic of the age, Ben Jonson said, Shakespeare was not of an age, but he was for all time. And whoever owns this copy of the First Folio is likely to be a collector who will certainly look after this copy.
There have been many collectors over the centuries who've preserved many items of national heritage, which otherwise would have been lost or damaged.
MONTAGNE: Peter Selley is director and English literature expert at Sotheby's in London. It sold a first edition of Shakespeare's complete plays for over $5 million to a London bookdealer that Sotheby's doesn't name.
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