One of the best things about auctions is that they bring an opportunity to tell little-known or forgotten stories. My favourite of the past week or so has been news that a copy of an early folio of Shakespeare’s plays is being offered with an estimate of £30,000-50,000.
This is a fourth folio dating to 1685 – a first folio would be priced in the millions; one sold in New York in October for nearly $10 million.
Comparatively little is known about our nation’s finest writer, but we do know that at the time of his death in 1616 no single volume existed bringing all his 36 plays together. That task, creating what is now known as the First Folio, was only completed seven years later in 1623 by the playwright’s colleagues and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell. Without them, it is unlikely that Shakespeare would enjoy the status he now has in our historical firmament, especially as without Heminge and Condell’s work, we would have lost at least 18 of the plays, including The Tempest, Twelfth Night, As You Like It and even Macbeth.
The First Folio was never guaranteed. The two actors had to spend some time acquiring the rights to publish and then at least as long persuading the publisher that it was a good idea. In the end it came out a year later than expected.
The Second Folio came out almost a decade later in 1632, with a third emerging in 1663.
That Third Folio is actually the rarest because it is believed so many copies were destroyed in the Great Fire of London three years later.
First Folios are, by comparison, easier to find and the latest tally is 235 copies survive today.