How friends and an oil magnate saved Shakespeare

Author Andrea Mays explains how close the world came to losing Shakespeare in her new book 'Millionaire & the Bard.'

The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio by Andrea Mays Simon & Schuster 368 pp.

To publish or not to publish: That was the question facing a pair of actor friends of the late William Shakespeare as they tried to figure out whether to preserve his work in print.

They didn’t expect a book of his plays would sell many copies, but they went ahead and found a publisher anyway. And so we now know that Hamlet asks “To be, or not to be – that is the question” instead of “To be, or not to be, Ay, there’s the point.”

Ay, indeed. If it wasn’t for this First Folio, Hamlet would go on to say this: “To Die, to sleep, is that all? Ay, all:/ O, to sleep to dream, I mary there it goes.”

No slings, no arrows. Just these uninspiring words we’d have been left in a butchered version of Hamlet that also replaces “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” with “what a dunghill idiot slave am I?”

We owe plenty of thanks to Shakespeare’s two friends, writes economist and historian Andrea Mays in her definitive and fascinating new book The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio.

“Even people who love Shakespeare don’t realize how close we were to losing more than half the plays,” she says. “Just one book stood between us and that horrendous version of ‘Hamlet.’ It means we have this essential god of the English language.”

Fast-forward three centuries to the other focus of the new book: A Gilded Age oil magnate named Folger (yes, oil, not coffee) who collected and preserved everything Shakespeare. His obsession lives on in the majestic Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., just yards away from that other cathedral to literature, the Library of Congress.

In an interview, Mays dips into Shakespeare’s world, tells us why the Brits feared Folger, and explores the mind of a collector to beat them all. In Shakespeare, she says, Folger found not a road to the past but a glimpse of the present: “That is jealousy, that is honor, that is loyalty, that is marriage, that is being spurned, losing your love – whatever the human emotion is. It reminds us of ourselves.”

Q: Why is Shakespeare’s First Folio so important?

It arguably saved half of Shakespeare’s plays from the ash heap of history. I don’t think that's overstating the case.

Two of his friends who had access to manuscripts and copies held by the theater decided to get together to publish a collected works. They published half of his plays that had only been previously published by pirates.

If this book wasn’t published, half of the plays, including “Macbeth,” “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “Cymbeline” and “Antony and Cleopatra” would not have existed.

Q: Why didn’t playwrights bother publishing their own plays?

Few would have wanted to read them. And those who’d wanted to get them would be theater companies who wanted to perform without paying royalties. As a shareholder, it would have cost Shakespeare money if another performance company had a pirated version of one of his plays, and they were performing it in London in competition with the Globe.

Q: Some publishers, including pirates, did manage to publish plays. How did they do that?

The publishers would pay actors to say their lines: Can you dictate the play for us? Or they might send a stenographer to watch the play and write down the words as quickly as they could.

Based on those two different methods, they could have published the plays without Shakespeare’s authorization.

Q: The excerpt from “Hamlet” above is from a pirated version of the play. Why is it inferior to “To Be or Not to Be?”

It’s a poor imitation, not the romantic, evocative poetry we’re used to. Imagine if that’s the version we had to teach in high school.

Q: How important are these two friends of Shakespeare – John Heminges and Henry Condell – who put together his work in the First Folio?

They’re the two greatest unsung heroes of English literature.

They were both actors; if you see “Shakespeare in Love,” Heminges is the stuttering chorus in “Romeo and Juliet.” They were shareholders in the company, and they would have acted with William Shakespeare and been directed by him.

They knew him extremely well. He left them money to buy memorial rings to remind them of him.

Q: These two men put a publisher to work to preserve these Shakespeare plays in print. Were they engaging in a 1600s form of self-publishing?

No, this wasn’t a vanity project. They wouldn’t have had enough money to put up front for the cost of the paper.

But they didn’t expect this to be a bestseller either. There had only been one folio-sized book – with paper folded once – of plays, and it took something like 16 years to sell out. They were not expecting this to be a giant moneymaker or sell out quickly.

Q: What makes the Folger collection of First Folios so special?

Out of 750 copies in 1623, 240 are left, and the Folger Library has 82 of those. By comparison, the next largest collection is 13 and owned by a Japanese university. The British Library has five.

Eighty-two is an astonishing number to have collected, but that is the tip of the iceberg. There are tens of thousands of books in Folger’s Shakespeare collection, and hundreds of thousands of other things like theatrical posters, tickets, playbills, musical instruments and scores, artworks, etchings, engravings, oil paintings and watercolors, furniture, and souvenirs carved out of the mulberry tree planted with Shakespeare’s own two hands on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Q: What drove Folger to this level of obsession?

I don’t argue what makes an obsessive collector. I just know them when they see them. Every waking moment is devoted to thinking joyously about the collection: Where do I get the money to buy this?

He was extremely fortunate that he married a woman who was not just accepting of his obsessions with his collection, but she was on board and a Shakespearean in her own right.

Q: Do you think Folger was trying to time travel to the 16th and 17th centuries, to feel what it was like to live at that time though his collection?

I don’t think it’s time travel. If I had to guess, the appeal is that we can see ourselves in these plays. We can look at something written in 1597 and say “That is exactly my experience.”

That is jealousy, that is honor, that is loyalty, that is marriage, that is being spurned, losing your love – whatever the human emotion is. It reminds us of ourselves, how men and women are no different than they were 500 years ago. I think that’s it.

Q: Folger actually angered an entire country. How did that happen?

During the Gilded Age, there was a big transatlantic trade in culture. There were a lot of English aristocrats who had spectacular libraries but not much else. They didn’t care about them and instead cared about country houses, horses, or jewels. If they needed money, one way was to sell part of their collections.

On the other side of the pond, American industrialists had plenty of cash. They’d go over to the European market through auctions or dealers and ask what they have for sale.

For some things that was perfectly fine, the people doing the selling were very happy. But in aggregate, people were getting upset that copies of the Folios were going across the pond in large numbers. All of these cultural treasures were getting sent across the pond.

There’s a cartoon in the British magazine Punch of a man dressed as Uncle Sam with Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” under one arm and the First Folio under the other, looking at [the crypt of] Shakespeare’s bones and saying “I’d set my heart on that skeleton.” This was a horror to the British, their treasures being lost.

Q: Would you have liked Folger if you’d known him?

I think I would have. He’s shy, modest, somewhat self-deprecating, far from flamboyant and self-aggrandizing. Based on letters from people he worked with, he was kind, generous with his time and a team player. But he didn’t want people to know what he was doing with his collecting so prices wouldn’t go up.

Q: What’s the legacy of Folger and his obsessive collecting?

He put this enormous collection together, with the folios alone allowing scholars to compare these multiple copies and infer how printing occurred, how books were made. That is something we arguably would have done today with the use of computers, but having the collection meant you could do that in 1930.

You could also look at marginalia in these different copies and learn about the times, the theater and the production of the plays. That's the legacy, along with the Folger library, a four-story underground world of anything you’d want from the Jacobean age: politics, music, history, herbology, medicine, law.

If it’s about that era, it’s in that building. And they’re digitizing amounts of the collection, which means it can be more widely shared.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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