Manuscripts Illuminated

Photo of Shakespeare's First Folio via Wikimedia Commons

Manuscripts Illuminated

THE SOURCE:“What Is a Rare Book?” by Fred C. Robinson, in The Sewanee Review, Fall 2012.

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In 1623, seven years after William Shakespeare died, two of his friends and fellow actors collected 36 of his plays, half of them never before published, thereby wresting such titles as Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest from oblivion. An original copy of this collection of the Bard’s work, known as the First Folio, now has an asking price of nearly $5 million. It is considered a rare book, writes Fred C. Robinson, a librarian of Yale’s Elizabethan Club collection of rare books, yet copies are not scarce: 230 are known to exist today. But as is the case for the Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 15th century and now surviving in 47 copies, the First Folio’s “desirability far exceeds its availability.”

Rare books’ real value, Robinson maintains, is not monetary but historical. Such books provide a window on the emergence of printing and, indeed, the “intellectual founders” of the modern age.

Books published before 1501, called incunabula (“swaddling clothes” in Latin, indicating their arrival during the “infancy of the art of printing”), tell a lot about the cultural history of their countries of origin. Early English printers, for instance, are notable for producing books in the vernacular, not Latin. Pioneer printer William Caxton strove for “the edification of ‘simple persones’ as much for ‘erudicion and lernyng,’ ” Robinson notes, and this populist bent would become “increasingly important in English intellectual history.” Even the typeface used in early books is instructive: Because schools taught children to read gothic type, or black letter, modern scholars infer that pages printed in that font were meant for lay audiences, while texts in roman or italic were for sophisticated readers.

Association copies, rare books containing evidence that they were “associated with an important person,” are especially collectible, and getting your hands on one confers more than boasting rights. Scholars are intrigued by verses a reader inscribed in Sir Thomas Overbury’s A Wife Now the Widdow of Sir Thomas Overbvrye Being A most exquisite and singular poem of the choice of a wife (1614). Signed with the initials J. M., the stanzas echo the rhyme scheme, meter, and imagery of some of John Milton’s published work.

The majority of rare books are prized because they are the earliest printings of treasured literary works. To illustrate the practical value rarities have in fostering “appreciation and understanding,” Robinson turns again to Shakespeare. His Hamlet survives in three seminal editions, but only one is truly the author’s. The first edition, of 1603, was printed by manuscript pirates who hired an actor (he’d once played a minor role in Hamlet) to recite the play from memory. A bad memory it was—even the famed “To be or not be” soliloquy is corrupted; only the words of the minor character Marcellus are rendered almost perfectly.

The owners of the play, the acting company to which Shakespeare had sold the rights, countered the pirates with a quarto printed the following year, 1604, proclaiming it “the true and perfect coppie” on its title page. It is still considered as such. The First Folio of 1623 is close to the original, but it was published using only what the acting company had on hand—a working copy from which a director had cut and added lines and inserted stage directions.

All three editions—1603, 1604, and 1623—are considered rare. The 1603 edition can teach us about the pirating practices of Shakespeare’s day; from the First Folio, we can learn about the staging of his plays. But only the 1604 edition is authentic, only three copies of it survive, and only one of those is in perfect condition. That copy is assessed at $10 million, Robinson writes, “but the book is in fact priceless.”