While preparing an exhibit on English-language literature last fall, staff members of the public library in Saint-Omer, near Calais, pulled what they thought was an unremarkable old book off the shelves. Instead, it turned out to be a first folio of William Shakespeare’s plays, of which only around 230 are known to exist. As no known manuscripts of his plays survive, the first folio has been credited with preserving much of Shakespeare’s work, and has been called the most important book in the history of English literature.
Edited by Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, the first folio of the Bard’s work was printed in a run of about 800 copies in 1623, seven years after his death. It contains 36 of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, and is considered to be the only reliable text for half of his works, including “Macbeth.”
First folios are among the world’s most sought-after volumes, and Shakespeare aficionados track their whereabouts like bloodhounds. According to Rasmussen, a new one surfaces around every decade. Over the centuries, there have been some famous first folio disappearances: one went down with the doomed S.S. Arctic off Newfoundland in 1854, while another burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. More recently, a first folio sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $5.2 million.
The volume recently uncovered in the library in St.-Omer is the 233rd known surviving first folio. It is missing its title page and several introductory pages, and was originally catalogued as an ordinary old edition, believed to be a reprint from the 18th century. But Rémy Cordonnier, director of the medieval and early modern collection at the library, suspected it might be a first folio. He turned to Eric Rasmussen, a professor at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of “The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue.” Rasmussen traveled to Calais late last month to examine the volume, and found it had the distinctive watermarks that appear on the handmade paper used in the original folios. Within minutes, he deemed the folio authentic.
As Rasmussen told the New York Times: “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.” Scholars pore over the variations—however minute—between Shakespeare’s first folios in the hopes of uncovering something new about the master playwright’s intentions. The St.-Omer folio has a number of handwritten notes in the margins, which may provide clues as to how the plays were performed in medieval times. For example, in one scene in “Henry IV,” the word “hostess” is changed to “host” and the word “wench” to “fellow,” indicating that a female role might have been changed to a male.
Most interestingly, the first folio found in St.-Omer may fuel the controversial debate over whether Shakespeare may have been a secret Catholic, which has been going on for years in scholarly circles. The public library inherited the holdings of a long-defunct Jesuit college founded there in 1593 to provide a Catholic education for boys, which at the time was banned in England. The name “Neville,” inscribed on the folio’s first surviving page, links the volume to Edward Scarisbrick, a member of a prominent English Catholic family who took that name, and who may have brought the book to St.-Omer in the 1650s. (The college was expelled from France in 1762 and relocated to the Low Countries before finally settling in its present home in Lancashire, England, where it became Stonyhurst College.)
But even if this particular first folio has Jesuit connections, skeptics warn, that doesn’t necessarily indicate anything concrete about Shakespeare’s personal religious beliefs. As Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro of Columbia University told NPR News: “If it had been found in a yeshiva in Vilna, I wouldn’t suggest that Shakespeare was Jewish.”
The first folio will go on display in St.-Omer next summer as part of the library’s planned exhibition. Though it will no doubt prove a special draw for fans of English literature, the folio is not the rarest book among the small-town library’s collections: It also has a Gutenberg Bible, fewer than 50 of which are known to survive.