News that a previously unknown copy of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays has been discovered in a French library has been excitedly picked up by the worldwide press. But apart from the treasure-hunt appeal of this story, does it really matter that instead of the 232 copies of this book listed by Eric Rasmussen and Anthony West in their The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), there are now, apparently, 233? A book that was never particularly rare is now just a little bit less rare. Whoop dee doo. It’s not quite the discovery of – say – a new copy of the first edition of Venus and Adonis or Hamlet, each of which exists in only a single complete copy, still less the discovery of the lost ‘Cardenio’ or ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’: plays attributed to Shakespeare in the early modern period that have not survived. So (how) does it matter?
An easy answer is that every copy of an early modern book is unique. Around 500 press variants in copies of the First Folio have been identified, attesting to processes of proof-reading and stop-press correction in the printing shop of William and Isaac Jaggard at the Barbican where the book was produced. The St Omer copy may well have a different arrangement of corrected and uncorrected sheets than any other extant Folio. Some copies even include proof-sheets marked up with corrections: this one might provide another example. A full bibliographic description of the new find might also add to our understanding of, for example, the late inclusion of Troilus and Cressida in the First Folio, apparently because of problems about securing the rights to publish it. A couple of extant copies show the difficulties in placing this belated play, with cancelled sheets showing how the order of the plays had to be rethought: a new copy might shine new light on this bibliographic puzzle.
Perhaps more immediately arresting about the new copy, though, is how it might develop our understanding of how the travels of the First Folio established and extended Shakespeare’s reputation and reach. Most copies of the First Folio show signs of use: the book that libraries now treat almost as a religious relic was once part of the everyday mess and activity of the household: a book for use rather than ornament. Seeing how this copy can testify to those forms of early use will add to the knowledge of how Shakespeare was consumed in the first century of the book’s life, before cheaper, more convenient reprints of the plays, beginning with Nicholas Rowe in 1709, replaced it as a standard reading edition.
The specific provenance of this new copy is tantalizing. Few details have emerged, but they immediately set off some very suggestive lines of inquiry. The St Omer librarians indicate that Henry IV is marked with some kind of early performance notes. If this is true, then it is a rare – although not unique – example of a copy that can be related to early theatrical performance in some way.
They also suggest it has the name ‘Nevill’ written in it, and speculate that this person may have been one of the students at the Jesuit college in St Omer which, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was an important training institution for English Catholics. In fact it might be possible to push a bit further with this identification: members of the prominent Jesuit family the Scarisbricks, from Ormskirk in Lancashire, took the name Neville. Edward Scarisbrick, born in 1639, was educated and later stationed at Saint-Omer. Perhaps he, or another member of his family, made his mark in their copy of Shakespeare. On his return to England at the beginning of the eighteenth century, he also wrote his name in another copy of the First Folio now in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. Other Jesuit associations can also be traced. There’s a First Folio in Stonyhurst College – the English descendant of St Omer’s college. The English college at Valladolid had a copy of the 1632 edition of Shakespeare, heavily censored. The seedy nuns-and-friar comedy Measure for Measure was obviously beyond redemption, and has been torn in its entirety from the volume (that book is now also at the Folger). We don’t yet know if there is any censorship evident in the Saint Omer text.
So Folio 233 potentially has lots to tell us about the spread of Shakespeare in the seventeenth century, about his early readers and about the intellectual and religious contexts and predispositions they brought to their reading. The book itself may not be rare, but its specific journey since its publication – still to be explored – is what makes it unique.