Subject: Shakespeare's First Folio
Setting: England, New York, Washington DC, Tokyo
Source: Bloomsbury Publishing, review copy
Paul Collins writes an entertaining and enlightening tale of the First Folio of William Shakespeare. I am by no means a Shakespeare scholar, although like most educated Americans, I've been exposed to his works both in high school and in college. So I was unsure whether this would really interest me or not. I am however interested in books, and how they are printed, published and distributed.
The story of how his works were published, and the tortuous journeys of these volumes is fascinating and presented with a clear and somewhat humorous narration. Collins follows the folios throughout the world, tracking ownership, explaining the differences in different editions, and painting word pictures of these archival masterpieces, including the gravy stains and tea cup circles left on the (now) precious pages. I was especially interested in two aspects, the collection at the Folger Library in Washington DC, and the collection owned by the Japanese and held at the Meisei University in Tokyo.
I did my library science graduate work at Catholic University in Washington DC, growing up in that area, and living there for over 20 years of my adult life. Shamefully, I must admit that I have never been to the Folger, and felt the loss as I read Collins' descriptions of the physical plant, and the incredible holdings. The Folger is at the top of my list for places to go the next time I visit the area!
We lived in Japan for almost 5 years, although before the Meisei's massive collection of Shakesperiana was begun. I found the descriptions of the area quite true, and also was intrigued by his descriptions of Japanese theatre and how Shakespeare has been adapted to it over the past hundred plus years. I am familiar with kabuki, and with the marvelous Japanese puppet shows: Bunraku. He explains:
Along with such alien notions as soliloquies, the poetry, the English system of meter and accent, didn't make much sense in Japanese. ...Japanese words are consonant-vowel, and because of the confoundment of R and L, Hamlet became Hamuretto, and Shakespeare himself turned into Sheikusupia.Puppets provided an excellent solution to the problem.
Collins' love of early printing, and the Folios in particular, is evident throughout the book. It is well researched, and provides additional resources at the end. I just wish he'd presented a bit more framing up front so I could have figured out earlier what he was attempting to tell us. It took me almost 100 slowly dragging pages before the light went on and then the story snowballed. For book lovers and students of Shakespeare this volume will provide hours of enjoyment.
My thanks to Bloombury Publishers for the review copy.