Friday, December 14, 2012

The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios


So fun facts about me: I great up in Stratford (Ontario, not England) and the Festival was a huge part of basically everyone's lives - your parents worked there (yes, my mom did), you knew someone who did, your family business supported the tourists, or you worked there (yep, I did!) and it was basically non optional that you'd go there as a school and then camp field trip (True story, I saw Alice through the Looking Glass 6 times because of school and various camps) (I also hated it) (Sorry Sarah Polly).  Unlike most elementary schools (or so I hear) we also studied Shakespeare all through grade school- one of the other schools did this whole big thing where they painted pictures, and their teacher re-wrote the plays to be accessible. My slacker school just had us read these books, and watch cartons.

So basically I'm saying that while I'm in no way claiming to be a scholar, I got Shakespeare. My favourite play is Pericles, my favourite character is King Lear and I can explain to you in detail why the Globe, and therein Main Stage have thrust stages. So I was tentatively excited to have won this book, because with great power, comes great responsibility. By that I mean if people find out you're from Stratford, everyone becomes and expert and tells you AT LENGTH everything they know about Shakespeare and blah blah blah. From that, I do know that arguably the First Folio of Shakespeare is one of the most important publications in terms of modern English (the others probably include the King James Bible and a terrifying number of others I'm too tired to be clever about), and I also knew (because this is something we all know in Stratford (you're thrown out if you don't)) that about 1000 copies were printed, and apparently 232 have been accounted for.  We know this, because Eric Rasmussen has a crack team of Folio Hunters. True Story, when I was a kid, I wanted to be on this crack team but then oops I got distracted by something shiny.

But this is a review, so here you go:  Rasmussen formed his team in the mid-90's with the goal of documenting as many surviving copies as possible and determining their provenance - this books is kind of a best of of what his team did. The world they discovered was... fascinating, obsessive and mildly terrifying. I don't really want to get into the stories, because I think that that ruins things, but it includes Cubans, a Pope, a bricklayer and a playboy. I don't really want to get into it, because if you're interested you should just go read it because it's a fun romp through a thoroughly obsessive and mildly insane group of people who are trying to do the impossible because you know that the next copy is hidden in Great Great Aunty Muriel's attic, under a million fur coats and possibly in a trunk that you lost the key to.

So here's the thing. I wouldn't recommend this to someone unless I knew they a) loved shakespeare b) loved anecdotes or c) were really into the tracking of loss of historical record (it's a thing, I promise).  That all being said, I really did enjoy the book. It's a fast read that make me laugh, taught me things about how books are lost, found and faked and generally was clever and interesting. A lot of the problems I've seen people have with it is that the author didn't get into a lot of detail about the stories - Rasmussen kind of flung the story at you, but glossed over the heavy investigative/academic work that you all know they did. I don't actually have an issue with him having done this- and I think it was the right choice. That stuff he glossed over  is intense, and usually not in a way that would be interesting to a lay person reading it. I do admittedly wish he got into a bit more detail with some of the stories I found more interesting, but I think he was going for a kind of overall quick "Hey, this is what we're doing isn't it cool" thing with the book. Basically? Yeah, yeah it is cool.


*** I was sent this book by the publisher- all opinions are my own.

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