Now a previously unknown folio has surfaced at a small library in northern France, bringing the world’s known total of surviving first folios to 233.
“This is huge,” said Eric Rasmussen, an American Shakespeare expert who traveled to France over the weekend to authenticate the volume. “First folios don’t turn up very often, and when they do, it’s usually a really chewed up, uninteresting copy. But this one is magnificent.”The book was discovered this fall by librarians at a public library in St.-Omer, near Calais, who were sifting through its collections for an exhibition on English-language literature. The title page and other introductory material were torn off, but Rémy Cordonnier, the director of the library’s medieval and early modern collection, suspected that the book — cataloged as an unexceptional old edition — might in fact be a first folio.He called in Mr. Rasmussen, a professor at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of “The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue,” who identified it within minutes.“It was very emotional to realize we had a copy of one of the most famous books in the world,” Mr. Cordonnier said. “I was already imagining the reaction it would cause.”Few scholars have yet seen the book. But its discovery among holdings inherited from a long-defunct Jesuit college is already being hailed as a potential source of fresh insight into everything from tiny textual variants to the question of Shakespeare’s connection to Catholic culture.“It’s a little like archaeology,” James Shapiro, a Shakespeare expert at Columbia University, said. “Where we find a folio tells us a little bit more about who was reading Shakespeare, who was valuing him.”
ShareThe folio, whose discovery was first reported by the regional French newspaper La Voix du Nord, is not the rarest book the St.-Omer library owns. It also has a Gutenberg Bible, of which fewer than 50 are known to survive.But few books hold the first folio’s value — one was sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $5.2 million — or its mystique. It contains 36 plays, nearly all of Shakespeare’s output. Printed in a run of about 800 copies in 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death, it is considered the only reliable text for half of his plays. (No manuscripts of any Shakespeare plays survive.) (Read more.)