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by Eric Rasmussen

Pub Date: Oct. 11th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-230-10941-4
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

A Shakespeare authority recounts his attempts to identify and document all extant copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623.

Rasmussen (English/Univ. of Nevada) begins by reminding us of the rarity of the First Folio (232 known copies), of its immense cultural significance (without it, half the plays of the Bard would no longer exist—including The Tempest and Twelfth Night) and of its physical aspects (its size, its £1 cost in 1623). The author then devotes some chapters to stories about the provenance of various copies—especially those with complicated, even violent histories. These chapters, distributed throughout, are interrupted occasionally with other segments—e.g., Rasmussen’s discovery in 2005 of a painting he believed/hoped was a portrait of Shakespeare (it wasn’t) and his story about an employee of Isaac Jaggard, printer of the First Folio, who left a hair stuck to the wet ink in one copy. The author also provides a terrific appendix, which readers should not skip, that tells how Elizabethans printed books and how the First Folio came to be. We learn, too, how Rasmussen assembled his team of Folio specialists and inspectors and how they created their massive census of the extant copies. He grieves about an inaccessible copy in the hands of a Japanese multimillionaire, and he tells how he once—during a bomb scare—walked out of a library with one of only two known copies of the 1603 Hamlet. The author also tells numerous tales of thefts and attempted thefts. Sometimes, Rasmussen affects a patronizing, just-plain-folks diction, and probably employs more exclamation points than in all of his scholarly writing combined!

Indiana Jones, sans bullwhip, pursues the Bard.