Twitter is altering the way we live (or so a Time magazine cover story has informed us). Google is digitizing entire libraries. A blogger for the Web-only Huffington Post attended a White House news conference in June and generated more hoopla than all the mainstream journalists put together.

The online word is ascending so rapidly that ink-on-paper text seems on the verge of obsolescence. But as English professor and NPR contributor Paul Collins reminds us in The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World, at least one select category of typescript retains value.

That category would be the surviving examples of the “First Folio,” the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623, seven years after his death. (By that time, some of the plays had already been published individually.) As Collins explains in this engaging synopsis of literary history, fleshed out with evocations of contemporary academia and connoisseurship, the extant copies of the First Folio (some 230, according to one expert he interviews) are among the world’s most coveted and diligently chronicled tomes. The Book of William depicts TV news cameramen rubbing shoulders with bibliophiles at Sotheby’s auctions, and eggheads poring over marginalia in libraries with bank-vault doors. We enter a realm where the raw material of an English 101 syllabus (for example, Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad) acquires a suspense quotient that Dan “Da Vinci Code” Brown might almost envy.

The author of Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World and other books, Collins has a flair for clever packaging, piquant details, and wry asides. Dividing The Book of William into five “acts” that interweave history and travelogue, he tracks the journeys of specific copies of the First Folio and specific collectors, past and present. He kicks off with a portrait of professorial types “with hair growing out of their ears” swamping a London auction. While an anonymous bidder offers £2.5 million for a Folio, other relics from the era attract comparatively little interest. “You can buy a James II letter for less than it costs to get your VW’s transmission fixed,” Collins quips.

Flashing away from the gavel-pounding, he tells how, a few years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, actors John Heminge and Henry Condell assembled copies of their former colleague’s plays for publication. In the years after printer William Jaggard completed the project (Collins estimates that about 750 copies were issued in total), the First Folio sometimes suffered from catastrophe and neglect. Many copies perished in the Great Fire that ravaged London in 1666. Others fell victim to doodlers, philistines pressed for scrap paper, at least one shipwreck, and, yes, readers with food on their fingers.

And then there was the outright hostility: in the 1720s, critic and poet Pope took on the curating of Shakespeare, cutting 1,500-odd lines from the First Folio text, which he considered riddled with “nonsense” and “mean conceits and ribaldries.” Swift to attack was playwright and scholar Lewis Theobald, whose two-hundred-page Shakespeare Restored, lambasting Pope’s edits, established the tradition of painstaking Bard scholarship. (Pope later lampooned Theobald in the mock epic The Dunciad.) In the aftermath of the highbrow skirmish, cheap versions of Shakespeare’s plays flooded the market. “Without anyone much noticing,” Collins writes, “the paradoxical foundations of Shakespeare’s canonization—that he was the artist of the masses and of scholars alike—had now been laid.”

Sometimes Collins’s then-and-now riffs feel padded: his chapter on the trove of Folios at Japan’s Meisei University (only the Folger Library, in Washington, D.C., owns more copies) spends too much time evoking Tokyo streetscapes, bullet-train platforms, and manga-store interiors, for instance.

More often, though, The Book of William’s cosmopolitan, century-hopping narrative points meaningfully beyond itself. As we read about seventeenth-century papermaking techniques, Samuel Johnson’s seminal modern reading of Shakespeare (“Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men,” Johnson wrote), and the transformation of America’s Henry Clay Folger from Standard Oil employee to Elizabethan-literature tycoon, we’re watching art evolve into iconography and speculator-friendly assets.

But for a full picture of how the Swan of Avon’s significance has morphed over the years, you’d have to complement The Book of William with Jack Lynch’s fascinating 2007 study Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife that Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard (Walker). Collins’s book shows how Shakespeare’s legacy has boomed in monetary and intellectual value. Covering some of the same material (the Pope/Theobald battle, for instance), Lynch demonstrates how that legacy has increased in artistic value—indeed, has defined what artistic value is. “The kinds of language and imagery at which [Shakespeare] excelled became the standard by which language and imagery were to be measured ever after,” Lynch explains. “Shakespeare wasn’t great because he drew convincing characters; drawing convincing characters became great because Shakespeare did it. The rules for literary excellence had changed, and Shakespeare was the one who changed them.”

It’s safe to predict that no Twitter user will ever achieve so much.


Related: More Acts to Come: Clare Asquith reviews Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: The Biography
He Made It All Up: Jesse Lander reviews James Shapiro's Contested Will

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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Published in the 2009-10-09 issue: View Contents
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