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Expert Comment: Shakespeare First Folio found

Shakespeare 2014 Wednesday 10 December 2014

Dr Kate Ash, Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow in English Literature, looks at the story behind a recently-unearthed copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays.

‘A book? O rare one!’ – Cymbeline V. 5. 227

In November, in the small town of Saint-Omer near Calais, confirmation came of a newly ‘discovered’ First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. Incomplete and mistaken for an eighteenth-century edition, the copy had previously excited little interest. All that changed when librarian Rémy Cordonnier suspected it was a much earlier copy and asked Shakespeare scholar Professor Eric Rasmussen (University of Nevada in Reno) to examine it. There are 232 other copies of the First Folio still known to exist, a pretty good survival rate for early modern printed material. This newly identified copy  provides us with an interesting provenance, having once been owned by the Jesuit college in Saint-Omer.

The Jesuit college welcomed Roman Catholics fleeing Protestant persecution in seventeenth-century England. It seems that the Saint-Omer copy of the First Folio was taken to France at this time. When the college was expelled from France in 1762, some of the books remained with the college, which moved to the Low Countries before finally settling back in Lancashire in 1794 as Stonyhurst College. Many books, however, including the First Folio were handed over to the public library. This First Folio is in good company in Saint-Omer; the library also houses a Gutenberg Bible, the fifteenth-century testament to the development of moveable type, of which only 23 complete copies are known to exist. 

Rasmussen’s confirmation has attracted significant media interest and, given the copy’s Jesuit connections, there has been renewed interest in the debate over whether Shakespeare was a Catholic sympathiser. The appearance of this copy of Shakespeare’s works tells us nothing about the playwright’s own religious sympathies; rather, what it does do is point to further evidence of the circulation of Shakespeare’s works  following the production of the First Folio in 1623.  The inscription of the name ‘Neville’ on the first page of The Tempest and the possible links to members of the Scarisbrick family who attended the college in northern France, are perhaps the most interesting avenues for inquiry. Of particular interest also might be the evidence of performance of the Henry IV plays in this French-owned Folio. Marginal annotations suggest that this Folio copy was used for a performance of Henry IV and, given the copy’s links to the Jesuit school, this might be evidence of an early school production. Most heartening for early modernists and book historians is the confirmation that archives still have much that is hidden and waiting to be rediscovered. 

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