A British fantasist whose playboy image is a sham; a New York couple drowning together while on holiday at a resort in Maine; and the unintentionally sticky fingers of both Pope Paul VI and the author himself (pp. 91-92): each makes an appearance in Eric Rasmussen’s The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios. This volume serves as the popular equivalent of a “Behind the Scenes” documentary for Rasmussen’s monumental scholarly project of the last two decades: to track down and catalogue in exhaustive detail as many as possible of the 232 known extant copies of the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, considered by many to be one of the most important and prized printed books in the English language.
Rasmussen’s collaboration with Anthony James West and a team of “First Folio hunters” has issued in the thousand-page The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue (Palgrave, 2012), a hefty reference tome that documents the history of this key Shakespearean volume. Although half of Shakespeare’s plays had been printed in quarto (or booklet) form during his lifetime, this posthumous printing was the first to contain the other eighteen of the Bard’s thirty-six plays. Nor was it by any means a mean operation: the book, which some thought more handsome even than the printed bibles of the age (p. xiii), sold for the equivalent of three month’s’ wages for a skilled tradesman.
An object thus whose provenance was from the start exclusive to the wealthy, most copies of the book have spent the four centuries of their existence as coveted markers of status, their ownership records a laundry list of the western world’s famous, powerful—and eccentric. Ownership of a First Folio connects the preening yet conniving Spanish Ambassador to the court of King James I (Ch. 1) with the man whose collection endowed Harvard’s great Widener Library after he died on the Titanic (pp. 50-1) and the family of Diana, Princess of Wales (p. 106). While their copies were legitimately bought, the stories of those sought in less reputable fashion mark the core of this book. From a bumbling band of petty thieves in 1940’s New England (Ch. 15) to the most famous book collector of nineteenth-century Britain and his biblio-kleptomaniac son-in-law (Ch. 9), Rasmussen tells their tales with a light and entertaining touch, making the volume a quick and fanciful read.
Interspersed with the tabloid details that make this work sure to sell, however, are personal and introspective chapters (mainly the even-numbered ones) in which Rasmussen lays out the fundamental root of why the First Folio drives so many personal passions and yet is equally worthy of scholarly attention. The latter was the motivation for the descriptive catalogue: the journey of each First Folio reveals the journey of western culture and society. As one of Rasmussen’s other major projects, Hamlet Works, shows, the marginalia of each successive owner offers valuable insights into the intellectual, cultural, and emotional reception of Shakespeare’s writings. For example, if the First Folio that belonged to Count Gondomar, Spanish ambassador to the court of King James I, ever turns up, it may offer insightful comparisons to a copy of the Second Folio (1632) that passed under the pen of the Spanish Inquisition (pp. 8-9 and photo). Other physical evidence in each book—animal paw prints across certain pages, odd pale-red stains, and even a bullet hole—offer tantalizing clues to the history of readership.
It is the personal connections to these books as objects with a past, however, that drives Rasmussen’s passion and gives a soul to what might otherwise be an entertaining but otherwise superficial account. While the Durham thief Raymond Scott’s description of the joys of connoisseurship—“When you touch an antique, you seem to reach back through the centuries to the person who actually created it,” (p. 32)—may simply have been another part of his assumed persona, that connection across the centuries is also at the root of Rasmussen’s passionate pursuit of the First Folios. His account of his own purchase and restoration of a portrait thought to be of Shakespeare (Ch. 10 and photos) would come off as uncomfortably pretentious if it were not for the wide-eyed, boyish innocence that animates it. It is in the very materiality of these antique objects that we find that mysterious power of connection: those with whom we share an intellectual journey have also physically touched and interacted with this book or that painting. The relationships between the material object and each successive human to experience that object bridge the awkward gaps of time and space, so that in the book’s own pages, yesterday and today become intimately present to one another.
If The Shakespeare Thefts were geared towards more of an academic audience, it might make more explicit the theoretical movements of such a meditation upon objective materiality. As it is, the splicing of thrilling vignettes with sometimes very personal reflections can often seem disjointed and jarring, and that awkwardness extends also to the occasional one-sentence paragraphs, which feel either fragmentary or overly-edited. At the same time, this disorientation may simply reflect the frustrations that frequently arose in the quest of the hunters to stitch together a narrative of each First Folio from fragmented and scattered evidence. Perhaps the book itself feels incomplete because Rasmussen still has not been able to see the Kamijo family copy in Japan, despite over twenty years of waiting (Ch. 4). ( )