Disclaimer: I received a reader's copy of this book from Edelweiss in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.
(The book was published on February 8th, 2014; review written 27/06/2015)
Review cross-posted on Edelweiss.
Published February 28th 2014.
Shakespeare has been in the news lately. Not only are his plays constantly being performed, read, analyzed, and loved, not only does his language fill our thoughts and his plots and themes our culture, there is something definitely afoot: “The Spanish Tragedy” by Thomas Kyd, a discovery of another First Folio in France, “discovery” of the only portrait made during Shakespeare’s lifetime, the identity of the enigmatic ‘Mr WH’ to whom the sonnets were dedicated, etc. Is the Shakespeare renaissance underway…?
This book is the story of one man obsessed with a need to amass Shakespeare’s genius in one place.
“The seed of the world-renowned Folger Shakespeare Library was sown when Emily Jordan, ‘fair in knowledge’, and Henry Folger, ‘well read in poetry and other books,’ attended a beach picnic and realized they shared a passion for Shakespeare.”
The world is full of small details. Thanks God for picnics and John Heminges and Henry Condell, who in 1620 decided to collect Shakespeare's complete works. Without them we would have neither a First Folio nor the FSL. Who knows how much or how little we would have known about Shakespeare or whether we would have had the plays to read and see and love. The world owes a lot to these men who had the foresight to recognize the genius and importance of Shakespeare’s works.
The earlier chapters are devoted to Henry's life and the author comments on how so little is actually known about his private life. Subsequent chapters deal with the story of Henry Folger whose book collecting hobby turned into an obsession to buy as many copies of the First Folio as he could lay his hand on, metaphorically speaking. Never had hoarding of Shakespeareana reaped such a wonderful collection and fame for the collector. We of course owe a great debt to Folger.
Emily Jordan does not figure prominently in Grant’s analysis. Grant also thankfully keeps off the topic of Shakespeare’s marriage.
The information about who had what folio where and how much it cost sometimes got a little tiresome, but I understand its inclusion was necessary in order to give us the full picture of Henry’s purpose. I’d have loved to know more about the Folgers, i.e., via a character study.
What drove Henry Folger to Shakespeare? The only insight Grant provides is, “Henry Folger’s original interest in Shakespeare was instinctive. It was a natural expression of his own spiritual character. The inner light of his mind was reflected in the age-dimmed but still bright mirror of the poet’s work. Science affords no satisfying explanation of such phenomena. Certain souls respond to certain souls, but no theory yet evolved is competent to furnish a complete analysis of the relation.” This is also a subject that has been on my mind lately for a different set of reasons. Can we say we’re better persons because we know our Shakespeare? Is it because of the stories, the words, or because of something elusive residing in our (western) mental interstices? I think the experiences and emotions of his characters are what drives us to Shakespeare, but there must be something else at play here...
Also personally interesting were Grant’s comments on the several variorum editions of Shakespeare’s works. i.e., “volumes providing copiously annotated texts filled with critical commentary spanning generations.” I was not aware so many editions existed.
The Folgers, Henry and Emily, utterly and irrevocably altered our literary landscape, not to mention our Western Weltanschauung. As Emerson aptly stated, “Now literature, philosophy, and thought, are Shakespearized.”
Grant’s book is a fine addition to my personal Shakespeare library.