The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios by Eric Rasmussen
A literary detective story and a fun work of scholarship all wrapped in one, Eric Rasmussen creates a fascinating true crime story that will delight any Shakespeare, or history, buff. The Shakespeare Thefts appeals to Shakespeare fans for the obvious reasons, but this chronicling of the First Folios takes us on a romp through history that anyone who is awake will find interesting.
Printed in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the First Folio was compiled by two actors in Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men. Only half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed in his lifetime, so John Heminges and Henry Condell did the world a great service with the printing of roughly 1,000 copies of what has become one of the rarest, most coveted and most valuable books in the world.
After a decade of tirelessly searching, Rasmussen and his team tracked down the 232 First Folios now known to still be in existence. A quick read, this book tells some of the interesting stories behind the individual copies. From a folio that was shot, with the bullet stopping at Titus Andronicus, to a stolen copy that was turned in by the thief because he feared his accomplices would sell it to Hitler, the entertainment is endless. Rasmussen attempts to trace copies that were defaced during the Spanish Inquisition, noting that it is perhaps the only book that got positive reviews from the Inquisitors. Although they crossed out many lines and tore out many pages, at least one of them liked some of the comedies, writing “good” on four of them. The Catholic Church wasn’t done with the First Folio. Centuries later Pope Paul VI was supposed to bless the Royal Shakespeare Company’s copy, but slyly accepted it as a gift instead! Diplomatic efforts eventually got it returned to the RSC. Rasmussen mentions some of the copies we know to be lost, such as the one burned in the 1871 Chicago fire. He also briefly traces the curious trend of private owners dying shortly after obtaining their copy. Amusing and light, this would be a great beach read for spring break or the coming summer and a nice little gift for your favorite bibliophile.