googlead166c37c697d4d3.html Glenn Ashton Author Blog: Was Shakespeare really Catholic? Only the Folio knows


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Was Shakespeare really Catholic? Only the Folio knows

Every now and then a rare book surfaces, worth a fortune; and even less rarely, a rare book that might solve an enduring mystery comes to light.

This is the case this week:

Few scholars have yet seen the book. But its discovery among holdings inherited from a long-defunct Jesuit college is already being hailed as a potential source of fresh insight into everything from tiny textual variants to the question of Shakespeare’s connection to Catholic culture.

“It’s a little like archaeology,” James Shapiro, a Shakespeare expert at Columbia University, said. “Where we find a folio tells us a little bit more about who was reading Shakespeare, who was valuing him.”

The folio, whose discovery was first reported by the regional French newspaper La Voix du Nord, is not the rarest book the St.-Omer library owns. It also has a Gutenberg Bible, of which fewer than 50 are known to survive.

But few books hold the first folio’s value — one was sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $5.2 million — or its mystique. It contains 36 plays, nearly all of Shakespeare’s output. Printed in a run of about 800 copies in 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death, it is considered the only reliable text for half of his plays. (No manuscripts of any Shakespeare plays survive.)

Today, first folios are tracked like rare black rhinoceroses, right down to their disappearances. One is known to have burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; another went down with the S.S. Arctic off Newfoundland in 1854.

New ones come to light every decade or so, Mr. Rasmussen said, most recently in the library of a London woman who died without a will. “It was a mess, with a bunch of second-folio bits mixed in,” Mr. Rasmussen said.

The St.-Omer folio, which is to be put on display there next year, will no doubt draw legions of visitors. It also, Mr. Rasmussen said, may feed one of the more contentious disputes in Shakespeare studies: whether the playwright was a secret Catholic.

That claim, Mr. Rasmussen said, has long been the subject of much “intelligent speculation,” most prominently of late by the Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt. The discovery of the folio in St.-Omer provides a bit more ballast, he said, if hardly a smoking gun.

The plot, as the Bard says, thickens …

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