I just read Michael Dirda’s rave review in the Washington Post and I’m excited about this new book by Columbia professor and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro: The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.
I also love this short video of Shapiro with five things you might not know about Shakespeare. Among other things, he talks about the exhausting schedule Shakespeare kept, rehearsing and performing different plays each day, and then when others went out drinking and carousing, he went back to work every night, reading books and writing new plays. An amazing achievement for anyone.
I like Shapiro’s comment: “When people ask me what was Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishment? He was able to do this without caffeine, because neither tea nor coffee had been introduced in his day.” Can you imagine?!
Back to the story of the First Folio that got away from Henry Folger. This story and many others are told by Andrea Mays in her book The Millionaire and the Bard. We left the Bodleian Library’s newly-rediscovered First Folio in the jubilant hands of the excellent Libarian Falconer Madan… the man with the worst poker face ever. Ever! He’s cheering far and wide about the fantastic lineage he’s unearthed for this long lost volume, jacking up the price tag, right out of the Bodleian’s ability to buy it.
Enter Henry Folger. Well, of course he wants it. He was buying up First Folios left and right with his Standard Oil money. He wanted all of them and for sure he wanted interesting copies like this, more than anything! This was his life’s obsession, buying these things. So what’s his Achille’s heel? He’s a cheapskate at heart. He doesn’t part easily with a pound sterling, so he tells his London bookbuyer to bid as low as possible.
Really, Henry? What the hell? You had the money and this was a once in a lifetime thing. In this case, the London bookbuyer also did Henry a disservice because they believed the Bodleian couldn’t raise anywhere near the funds that Henry was offering (about $15k) and they told Henry not to bother bidding higher. This was a grave tactical error.
The Bodleian went public asking for donations to save the precious book from leaving England, and the Turbutt family gave them extra time to raise it. After all, one of the Turbutt kids was a student at Oxford, and well, it would look bad. The (actual, not sub!) Bodleian librarian E.W.B. Nicholson tried to shame donations out of alumni, but still, they were short.
Folger wasn’t richer than the wealthy English families… why didn’t any of these old money aristocrats come to the Bodleian’s rescue? Who knows? They were busy living their Downton Abbey lives, hunting foxes and buying pretty clothes… no one was hunting First Folios but Folger.
Still, small donations came in and the issue of Britain’s cultural heritage crossing the Atlantic got more and more press. Even ugly cartoons… awful caricatures of Henry pursuing the Bodleian First Folio with sacks of money. Henry Folger hated press and here it was, all against his greedy, grabbing, American self. How awful! He just coveted the book. Why did this bother anyone?
Last minute donations (oddly including one from Turbutt himself?) saved the Bodleian First Folio from heading to Folger’s storage crates in America. Oh dear. Henry didn’t take losing well. He told the London bookbuyer Sotheran to offer Turbutt $25k (nearly double his initial offering, which was already unheard of crazy money at the time).
But it was too late, the Bodleian had bagged the deal. As Mays says, Henry lost it without having his best offer on the table. More weirdly, and a little window into Folger’s bizarre obsession, he asked Sotheran to offer the Bodleian librarian £1,500 to let Henry have “ownership” of the book during his lifetime. If need be, even letting the book remain in England. As Mays puts it, “In other words, Folger would not even demand that the folio be sent to him in America. He would be satisfied with the knowledge that he ‘owned’ the book in the abstract without ever having it in his possession. This was a psychological portrait of the mind of an obsessive collector.”
Um, ya think? Can you just picture all these staid London graybeards smoking their pipes in their dark-paneled and fine leather-filled club just laughing their heads off about the weird American while they drink their whiskey? His requests went nowhere and Henry finally gave up his pursuit. That book remains in Oxford and you can peruse it digitally from your desktop.
Get Andrea Mays’ book… there are so many great stories about Henry Folger and his Foliomania. It’s an amazing glimpse of his eccentricity, but you’ll also learn about Standard Oil (the source of his wealth), learn about his wife Emily who was his full partner in Foliomania, and gain a lot of insight into the importance of the First Folio.
The book includes a photo of the Folger Library’s 82 First Folios shelved in its underground vault. An amazing photo! One third of the known copies in the world, all sitting there on shelves in Washington DC. It leaves me to wonder which First Folio I had a close encounter with a few years ago. Was it Folger First Folio No. 1 — the precious Vincent Folio? The One That Did NOT Get Away? I doubt they bring that amazing book out for a bunch of library students to gawk at, but whichever it was, it was in beautiful condition and amazing to see up close.
I appreciate the Folger Library so much more now having read Andrea’s book. As she says, “Henry Folger was a brilliant, ethical American businessman. He was an unapologetic industrialist. And the Folger Shakespeare Library is a triumph of American capitalism and philanthropy.” When you’re in DC, be sure to stop by the Folger… it’s a stone’s throw from the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. You’ll get to see one of their First Folios behind glass, and even that is an incredible treat.
But even more exciting, the Folger is taking the First Folio on tour throughout the United States in 2016. The book will be displayed in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Check out the tour dates… I hope you can have a close encounter, too!
Is Shakespeare’s language too antiquated to understand? Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s huge new “Play On!” project seeks to remove the language barrier by employing 39 playwrights and 39 dramaturges to translate each play into modern English and stage it.
Good or bad? American Shakespeare Center’s co-founder Ralph Alan Cohen sees both sides, but the gist of his recent blog post American Shakespeare Center Director of Mission’s Response to the Shakespeare Translation Project is that the project entrenches the idea that Shakespeare’s language is too difficult for modern audiences, endorses ShakesFear and underestimates the genius of audiences. He points out that nearly all of Shakespeare’s words are in current English usage per dictionaries and those that aren’t can usually be understood in context (the words around them) and with proper staging. Much to my delight, they work hard at this in Staunton.
My take on OSF’s project? Sounds awesome to me! It’s not like the real deal won’t still be readily available to anyone interested. Shakespeare is on stage all the time in many forms and at many venues in metro Washington DC where I live. Some are traditional, some are adaptations… the Capital Fringe Festival always includes some odd takes on Shakespeare and Synetic Theater does wordless Shakespeare productions! I am no purist and see value in it all.
That said, I love the words in the original. I love the words. The meaning does not come easily to me; I have to work at it and think. It requires my attention in a way nothing else I read or watch does. And there is pay off. I mentioned in my About Me when I started this blog that my grades in my three college Shakespeare classes way back when were all Bs and the Bard brought down my GPA. Yet, in some of my darkest days when I needed something positive to focus my brain on, I chose to return to a 25 year old challenge and I started this blog. I agree with this quote from Cohen’s blog post:
OSF’s project, in worrying about making Shakespeare easier, endorses the wrong idea that Shakespeare is too hard. But it is just the right kind of hard. In the words of our Associate Artistic Director, Jay McClure, “Shakespeare is not easy; it is not neat, it is not without complications; it is not always understandable. Just like life. And just like life, it is miraculous. And it is work. And it is worth it.”
And it is worth it!
This is the story of The One That Got Away from Henry Folger, collector extraordinaire of Shakespeare’s First Folios. The story is told with flair by Andrea Mays in her lovely book The Millionaire and the Bard. This is the story of Gladwyn Turbutt, Falconer Madan, Strickland Gibson, William Wildgoose, and Sir Thomas Bodley… aren’t these fantastic names?
In 1905, Turbutt brings a book into the Bodleian Library at Oxford (the Bodleian, named for Thomas Bodley back in 1602). Turbutt’s father found the book moldering in their library at home and he brings it in, maybe to ask about repairing the damage to the cover. Here’s a photo of the book… see the damage on the upper right side?
Ding ding ding… this rings all kinds of bells at the Bodleian, where such damage is not unknown. Falconer Madan, a “sublibrarian” (which doesn’t make him sound very important!) shows it to their bindings guy Strickland Gibson, who realizes the damage is from a chain… books were so valuable hundreds of years ago that they were chained to the shelves. No student thefts!
Gibson also recognizes the binding as the work of William Wildgoose, the go-to-bookbinder in early 17th century Oxford. This places this particular First Folio in Oxford in the 1620s, when the book was published. This sort of makes sense, because the Bodleian had a deal to get a copy of each published book, like the Library of Congress today. It’s odd, though. The Bodleian didn’t collect plays. At least, Sir Thomas Bodley didn’t intend to when he started the library at Oxford… he considered plays “idle books, and riff-raffs” according to a letter Mays found. Riff-raffs!
They apparently found room for Shakespeare at the Bodleian. (Sub)librarian Falconer Madan to the rescue (can we at least call the poor man a librarian after all these years?). He finds reference to this First Folio in a 1635 appendix to the Bodleian catalog (come on, he deserves to be called a full freaking librarian after that detective work, right?!). So how did it become unchained? Was it stolen? Ripped right off that Bodleian shrine to learning, leaving future Oxfordian students Shakespeare-less?
Not to worry, our Librarian (yes! he deserves that title) Falconer Madan’s not done! He finds the First Folio no longer listed as belonging to the Bodleian in 1674. It’s been usurped by the (much inferior, we now know, but at the time cutting edge) Third Folio of 1664… an updated edition that included stuff Shakespeare didn’t even write! Yep, the new and improved Third Folio included such Shakespearean apocrypha as Locrine, The London Prodigal, The Puritan, Sir John Oldcastle, Thomas Lord Cromwell, and A Yorkshire Tragedy. You don’t see any of those plays staged by Shakespeare companies nowadays! Librarian Falconer Madan found that the Bodleian had sold off their First Folio with superfluous discarded books for only £24 to a man with a very ordinary name: Richard Davis. You’d think with all these other great names they could have found someone better-named to buy it. Oh well.
So, this was The One That Got Away from the Bodleian Library in the 1660s. Ahem. Shouldn’t the great library have it back? Librarian Falconer Madan thought so! He got all excited…. Andrea Mays says “jubilant” and showed it off in London, along with presenting all about his hard work (such a fine Librarian!). Only one other First Folio could be traced back to its original 1623 owner (and Henry Folger secretly already owned that one…. another great story, but you’ll need to get Mays’ book to read about the Vincent Folio!).
Mays says simply, “It was not wise of Falconer Madan to publicize his discovery. His excitement had trumped his prudence.” D’oh! Our poor Librarian thought for sure the Bodleian would get their book back automatically. Alas, he didn’t think through the logistics, like money, and the Turbetts now knowing it was worth a lot of money (even more now due to the fine research Librarian Falconer Madan conducted), and the Bodleian not having the money to buy it.
D’oh! Damn, damn, double damn. Can you imagine what Librarian Falconer Madan felt like when he realized what he’d done? Despair! As Mays says, “Madan would come to regret his naive enthusiasm.” D’oh! Bet he was fun to play poker with!
Stay tuned for the next installment of The One That Got Away!