A rare First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays has been discovered in a small town in Northern France. The book had been filed away in a library in Saint-Omer, near Calais, for 200 years.
It was discovered by Rémy Cordonnier, a medieval literature specialist, while he searched for material to use in a planned exhibition of Anglo-Saxon authors. The Folio contains 36 of the 38 known Shakespeare plays and was originally printed in 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death. Only 800 copies were produced, of which between 230 and 240 are thought to still exist. The recent discovery is only the second First Folio known to reside in France.
Cordonnier said: “It had been wrongly identified in our catalogue as a book of Shakespeare plays most likely dating from the 18th century. I didn’t instantly recognise it as a book of value. It had been heavily used and was damaged. It had seen better days.”
On discovering the tome, Cordonnier contacted Professor Eric Rasmussen of the University of Nevada, a renowned authority on Shakespeare and author of “The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue,” who was working in the British Library in London. He travelled to Saint-Omer on Saturday November 22 and authenticated the book as a genuine First Folio.
“This is huge,” he told the New York Times. “First folios don’t turn up very often, and when they do, it’s usually a really chewed up, uninteresting copy. But this one is magnificent.”
The Saint-Omer First Folio has around 30 of its original 300 pages missing, lacking a title page and other introductory material. However, the plays themselves remain largely intact. They also contain annotations, suggesting the Folio was used to inform live performances.
For example, in one scene in Henry IV the word “hostess” is changed to “host” and “wench” to “fellow”, an amendment that suggests a female character was turned into a male for an early performance.
“One of the most interesting things about the book is that the Henry IV play has clearly been performed because there are notes and directions on the pages that we believe date from around the time the book was produced,” Cordonnier said.
The library intends to display the Folio as the centrepiece of its forthcoming exhibition of Anglo-Saxon authors.