Christmas came a little early for Shakespeare scholars this year. In September, a good-quality copy of the Shakespeare First Folio was unearthed at a small library in France, making it the 233rd copy known to be in existence of about 800 originally printed. (That’s according to the New York Times; the Guardian puts the number of surviving copies at 230.)
Because its provenance includes a Jesuit college, the discovery has given rise to new speculation on the Catholic background of Shakespeare’s life and work, but it’s most interesting for other reasons as well. First Folio expert Eric Rasmussen, who authenticated the volume recently, came across this intriguing piece of marginalia:
In one scene in Henry IV, the word “hostess” is changed to “host” and “wench” to “fellow” — possibly reflecting an early performance where a female character was turned into a male. “I’ve never seen this kind of gender switch in a Shakespeare folio,” Mr. Rasmussen said.
Rémy Cordonnier, an expert in Renaissance literature who discovered the copy, told the Guardian that the volume “will not go on general display, but will be scanned so it can be consulted on the library website and will be available for other libraries and museums to borrow.”
This gives me the opportunity to update somewhat my earlier post on single-play Shakespeare editions for the general reader, “Reading the Arden Shakespeare.” Eric Rasmussen is also, with Jonathan Bate, the general editor of the RSC Shakespeare series from the Modern Library, the most recent entry in such editions. I’ve had the opportunity to look over a few samples from the series, and I can recommend it as a good middle-ground choice between the apparatus-heavy Arden and the more accessible Folger Library and Penguin editions. The RSC Shakespeare editions offer good, brief introductions; very useful summations of key facts about the text and the plots themselves; and well-illustrated sections on each play’s tradition in the theatre. The only peculiarity of the edition is that it relies exclusively on the First Folio as a control text — a not unwise decision for the 18 plays that appear in the Folio alone, but somewhat problematic for the other 18, which were also published in quarto editions of greater and lesser authority. (Bate puts the argument for using the Folio text for this edition in “The Case for the Folio.”) Prominent Shakespeareans Gregory Doran, Ron Rosenbaum, and James Shapiro serve on the editorial advisory board for this edition, and at a price of about $8.00 for each of the plays, they’re a very good bargain.
Unless we discover a trove of Shakespeare’s holograph manuscripts, we’ll never really know the form in which Shakespeare first wrote these plays; unless a stash of anachronistic videotapes turns up, we’ll also never really know how these plays first appeared on the stage. The First Folio discovery should remind us of that, but also remind us of just how rich the experience of Shakespeare can be. We are constrained — like so many of Shakespeare’s own characters — to live in permanent doubt about these questions and, bearing that doubt, make our way through his world as best we can.