Rare Book Monthly
A Shakespeare First Folio Comes Up For Sale
By Michael Stillman
It is a cultural icon and almost certainly the most notable literary work ever published. In fact, it may well be the second most collectible book in the world, second only to the Gutenberg Bible. We could, of course, only be talking about the Shakespeare first folio. It has long been extraordinarily desirable to collectors, but as the years have gone by, it has gone from being very hard to find and prohibitively expensive to buy, to virtually impossible to obtain. For a moment this July, it will revert to its status of being just hard to find and prohibitively expensive.
On July 13, in London, Sotheby's will be auctioning a copy of Shakespeare's first folio. From what we hear, it is a remarkably good copy. It has been in one library since at least 1716. Sotheby's states that this is the longest time any copy of the first folio has been in one library. They also describe this copy as one of the two finest to appear at auction in London since the Second World War. Unlike many copies, which were rebound in fancier bindings in the 19th century, this one remains in a 17th century plain brown calf binding, more contemporary and desirable to today's collectors.
What makes the first folio so spectacularly important is that it saved a great many of Shakespeare's works from oblivion. Shakespeare did not publish his plays, and whatever scripts were around for their performances have long since disappeared. The result is that half of the 36 plays printed herein would have been lost were it not for this edition. The list of works preserved only because of the first folio reads like a laundry list of the greatest English literature ever written: Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, A Winter's Tale, The Tempest, All's Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Henry VIII, King John, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, Timon of Athens, Two Gentleman of Verona, and Henry VI Part I.
Fortunately, seven years after Shakespeare's death, at the behest of some actors, this collection of his works was published. The year was 1623, and an estimated 750 copies were printed. It is believed about a third of them survive. Most are incomplete. This copy is complete with the exception it does not contain the page of verses which precedes the title page, provided instead in facsimile. The remainder is all present, making this an unusually complete copy.