Shakespeare's First Folio on Screen:
A Bodleian Library Folio (32).


Books  Twelve Books That Changed The World (2006) is a book and four part ITV documentary series in which Melvyn Bragg highlights a series of British volumes which he thinks, have had the most profound effect on humanity.  There are the obvious choices: On The Origin of Species, The King James Bible, Principia Mathematica and the Magna Carta.  The more specific choices: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Married Love, On the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Experimental Researches in Electricity and The Wealth of Nations.  The probably aimed at the channel's core audience: Book of Rules of Association Football.  

Over the years I've been hoarding documentaries about Shakespeare and found this on a DVD-R which I must have recorded off-air at the time.  This would have been in the period when I was recording from a separate Freeview box direct to disc so everything is in the wrong aspect ratio  (which is also why all the screenshots on here look a bit weird).  It opens with a trailer for GMTV followed by an advert for digital switchover to offer some historic context and includes weather forecast which probably also captures perfectly what life was like in the UK in 2006:

The grand finale is the First Folio.  There's not much you can do with ten minutes of screen time, so Melvyn offers a brief outline of how the book was published, a mix of scenes from the plays (mainly sourced from the BBC Shakespeare although there's a bit of Branagh and Kurosawa sprinkled in) and contributions from Yale University's Professor Harold Bloom and the then Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library Dr. Gail Paster who aid Melvyn in collectively offering a general sense of the historical importance of the Folio in the development of the English language.  There's also a nice moment when some international acting students translate the text into their own language.

There are actually three different Folios in the programme (four if you count a facsimile used when Melvyn's quoting from the preface).  Dr Paster has one of the Folger copies on the desk beside her, but its in profile and there's not enough visual information to work out which one.  There's a single shot of the contents page of a folio which isn't the one seen elsewhere (we'll get to that).  Despite having an unfolded crease down the middle I've not been able to identify from Rasmussen and West's catalogue The Shakespeare First Folios which copy this is from.  The third is the one which is the reason why we're here.

A slow vertical pan reveal Melvyn sat behind a table covered in a black cloth with the First Folio before him.  Although it might have been obvious to some of you which of the Oxbridges this is, I was sent off on a tangent by the book which uses images from the Cambridge owned editions.  Did I phone the rare books section at Cambridge University to see if the numbers connected to the picture credit meant anything?  I may have.  Did they?  No, no they didn't.  Not that it mattered.  I soon realised the shields on the chairs were from Oxford which led to the Bodleian which has large sections of its rare books collection digitised and available to view online.

The Bodleian Library has two Folios of which this is probably the more photogenic.  The other, Bodleian Library Arch. G c.7 is the original deposit copy sent by the Folio's printmaker William Jaggard to the library.  There's much to be said about how it was sold off as worthless to a local bookseller when the Third Folio was published in 1664 and only returned to Oxford in the early 1900s after they outbid the Folger library.  That copy doesn't appear on screen because as you can see from the digital scan it was not taken care of to say the least with whole chunks of the pages torn out.  The section listing its condition in Rasmussen and West's catalogue stretches to three and a half pages.

The digital scan of the copy which does appear, Bodleian Library Arch. G c.8 also has had a difficult life but at least the relevant pages are intact and for the most part looks very impressive on the table in front of Melvyn.  I was ultimately able to confirm which copy it was because a shot of title page include a partial glimpse of the opposite side where the "To the Reader" usually appears has been pasted in from another source, a Fourth Folio edition if the pencil note underneath is to be believed.  The title pages from Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet which are shown also match this copy, the latter notably because of a burn mark at the top of the page.

The history of this folio is pretty straightforward.  The provenance begins with eighteenth-century literary scholar Edmond Malone (there's a Reynolds portrait of him on his Wikipedia page), a man after my own heart who devoted part of his life to trying to deducing the order in which Shakespeare wrote his plays.  This was published in the complete works edited by Samuel Johnson and George Steenvens in 1778, an order which is still largely followed.  Malone later fell out with Steevens, notably when he published his own complete works which he said would be "more scientifically and methodically edited than the Johnson–Steevens edition was ever likely to become."

As part of his research Malone collected many books including the Folio, although it's not known where he procured it in 1780.  He treated it as a working copy and/or scrap book and there are notes about the nature of the play strewn throughout, various engravings of luminaries like the Earl of Pembroke pasted in and a facsimile of Shakespeare's signature.  How much of this was Malone or the previous owner isn't clear although its pretty startling to see a Folio treated in this way.  On one page Malone has even included in what's supposed to be an engraving of Shakespeare taken from the Steevens' complete works with a note underneath explaining that it's not actually the playwright, but James I.

On his death, he left a lengthy instruction to his brother Richard, Lord Sunderlin, that the lot be given to Trinity College Dublin.  But Richard was an Oxford man, so decided to ignore all that.  He initially loaned the collection to James Boswell The Younger, son of Samuel Johnson's biographer who was working on the second edition of the Johnson/Steeven complete works.  After Boswell died, Richard finally deposited the Elizabethan books including the First Folio to the Bodleian in 1821 and auctioned off the rest.  It's been there ever since, appearing in two Shakespeare exhibitions in 1916 and 1964.

But what about the contents page?  Although the Bodleian edition is in pretty good order, the box at the bottom of the page contains a note from Malone in which he noticed how Troilus and Cressida seems have have been a late addition, which is a bit too much detail for a fifteen minute segment about the book late night on an ITV Sunday.  Two Oxford Colleges, Queens and Wadham both have their own copies but the entries in The Shakespeare First Folio don't mention the crease you can see above and best will in the world I'm not going through the rest of the book trying to match it.  Perhaps it was filmed as a pick-up when the crew visited the Folger library?

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