Folio, Where Art Thou?

One man’s quest to track down every copy on the planet

Table of Contents from the First Folio
Table of Contents from the First Folio Wikimedia Commons

Given the absence of any original manuscripts in Shakespeare's handwriting, the First Folio is about as close to the Bard as you can get. After Shakespeare died in 1616, two actors from his company began collecting his plays, working from printed versions, transcriptions and their own memories. The result of their labors, published in 1623, may be the greatest rescue in English literature: of the 36 plays in the Folio, 18 appeared in print for the first time. Without the actors' efforts, Macbeth, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night might not exist.

This plain-looking bound volume originally sold for about £1; this past July, a copy fetched $5.2 million at auction. Because 17th-century printers made corrections on the fly and sometimes intermixed corrected and uncorrected pages, each copy is unique. And because scholars use these variants to pin down what Shakespeare actually wrote, tracking down all the Folios has become essential. While nobody is quite sure how many were originally printed—the current estimate is about 750—there is agreement about how many survive.

"There are now 230," says Anthony James West, a senior fellow at the University of London.

If West seems surprisingly precise, it's for good reason. Only four books have had worldwide censuses—the Gutenberg Bible, Audubon's Birds of America and Copernicus' De Revolutionibus are the other three—and the Folio's tally is by far the oldest and most ambitious. While lists of Folio owners were made in 1824 and 1902, West has expanded the task into a monumental project: examining the Folios and recording details of every page of every copy.

His work for the Oxford University Press series The Shakespeare First Folio: The History of the Book may qualify him as the most indefatigable pursuer of a single edition in literary history. Volume 1 charts the ups and downs—mostly ups—of what people have been willing to pay for a First Folio, and Volume 2 tracks the ownership of each one over the centuries. Two future volumes, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan, will identify the unique characteristics of each copy and include specialists' essays on Folio issues.

Although Folio owners are a varied lot—from a Microsoft billionaire to a bucolic Irish college—all seem to have welcomed West's quest. One even let him take a copy back to his hotel to examine it. West assures owners their privacy, if they wish it. "One owner wanted to be identified only by the continent he was on," he says, "and I honored that wish."

Though British by birth, West, age 75, earned an MBA at Harvard in 1958, then spent two decades as an international management consultant. But beneath the suit and tie beat the heart of a bibliophile. "My father was a letterpress printer," he says. "I was brought up around the smell of ink." (He also earned two degrees in English literature.) After enjoying some business success, West discovered that Shakespeare's Folio needed a dedicated chronicler. In 1989, at the age of 58, he returned to graduate school to become that person.

"I've nearly spent my life savings on this," he says a bit ruefully. He works from his home in the English countryside, but the effort has sent him crisscrossing five continents. West has found that Folios generally follow new wealth; these days the world's second-largest collection is at Meisei University in Japan.

Newly discovered Folios still turn up. In 2004, Anne Humphries, a homemaker near Manchester, was named the sole survivor of a relative she'd never heard of; among the estate was a Folio that executors listed as "presumed to be a facsimile." Not at all. West discovered another Folio in the public library of the Yorkshire mining town of Skipton; the book had been mislabeled and forgotten.

As long as Folios are misfiled in libraries and hiding with long-lost relatives, the count of 230 copies will inch upward. At least a dozen known copies remain untraced. "I have about 130 leads," West says, adding that some are "quite hot."

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