April 09, 2016

Shakespeare First Folio found on Scottish Isle of Bute


When a leading Shakespeare scholar was contacted by a country house on the Isle of Bute with a claim to have an unrecorded copy of the playwright’s First Folio, her response was blunt: “Like hell they have.”

The collection of William Shakespeare’s plays from 1623 is not only among the most valuable books in the world - one copy fetched £3.5 million in 2003 - but also the most extensively researched.

So Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University, steeled herself for a disappointing journey to meet the trustees of Mount Stuart House. “I thought, oh, they’re having a laugh. Or rather, it’s not a laugh. It’s going to be really sad because they think they’ve got one and they won’t.”

To her astonishment, she was wrong. Thorough checks on the watermarks and printing errors in the book showed it to be authentic.

The discovery, in the library of the stately home owned and run by a charitable trust, is remarkable even though the book is relatively common compared with other works to have survived from the 17th century. The Reed-Bute copy, named after the island and Isaac Reed, a literary editor who bought it in 1786, is the 234th known to have survived from an estimated print run of 750. The 233rd came to light in 2014, in a Jesuit college in Saint-Omer northern France, but such finds are unusual.

Professor Smith said that it was a valuable discovery because no copy of the book was printed in exactly the same way, which may yield clues as to how the text was put together. It will also shed light on how Shakespeare’s work was regarded in the centuries after his death.

“With each copy, we know some more about the reception of Shakespeare’s first book. This is like seeing a tiger in the wild.”

The trust intends to keep the book as an attraction for visitors to the house, which is open to the public, but the market value for such a good copy would be at least £2 million.

Professor Smith said that the house had already increased its security. “On the one hand it’s a brilliant draw for visitors, but there is also the pain of having to make it secure.”
The book’s value has increased exponentially as Shakespeare’s influence continues to spread. The First Folio, which collected 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, was sold for around £1 in 1623, which is about £100 in today’s money.

The Reed-Bute copy, which has been divided into three goatskin-bound volumes of comedies, tragedies and histories, was sold for £38 in 1807.

Stanley Wells, honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said that the discovery was important because every scholarly library in the world wanted to have a copy. “It’s possible that the new copy will have new things to tell us, but we will have to wait until an expert has gone through it.”

The trustees at Bute knew for several years that they had a book purporting to be a First Folio but only decided to seek authentication in September. The record of ownership is patchy. Reed sold it to someone known only as “JW” and after that the trail goes cold.

It was not included in a celebrated census of First Folios created in 1906 by Sidney Lee, whose work was seen as comprehensive. Professor Smith said: ” The real importance of the First Folio is that, without it, we would not have half of Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth, The Tempest and As You Like It. Shakespeare would have looked very different, and his legacy would have been very different, had the Folio not been published.”

Professor Smith said that experts had assumed that all surviving copies had been found. “In 2012 there was a catalogue published that we thought was an exhaustive list, but evidently not.”


By Jack Malvern

With many thanks to The Australian 

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