The University of London is right to have retreated late last week from its proposal to auction off four copies of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, usually known as the First Folio, published by the actors John Heminges and Henry Condell in 1623.
The books had been bequeathed to the university in 1958, on condition that they be kept there, but the university was thinking of “refreshing” its collection, with the help of £5-million or so. It might have been acceptable to sell them to a trustworthy museum or university library; if a private collector had bought them, their eventual future could have been at risk.
Moreover, the four books need to be kept together. Printing was still a slow process in 1623, allowing for amendments in separate copies; comparisons can be revealing.
The editing of the 36 plays included in the First Folio, the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays – seven years after the author’s death – raises all sorts of questions, particularly in relation to the differing texts in previous, separately published plays in “quarto” editions.
Heminge and Condell were friends and colleagues of Shakespeare, but many scholars doubt they themselves edited or transcribed the texts; the two actors do not seem to have had such skills. As if no editing had been needed, they claimed, “Wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers.” Saul Frampton of the University of Westminster is working on a book with the interesting suggestion that the real editor was John Florio, best known as the translator of Montaigne’s Essays.
Fortunately, the University of London has yielded to the torrent of indignant scholars, and the four copies of the First Folio will stay together to be studied together in the university’s Senate House Library.