Breaking Shakespeare

In my line of book history work, I have spent a significant amount of time thinking and writing about Shakespeare folios, so I'll refrain from saying anything more than that the image below should be extremely (even frustratingly) familiar:

I say only "folio," rather than "First Folio" because this image is taken from the Iowa copy of the Second Folio of 1632 (catalog record here). Well, that's not exactly right, either, because the title-page of the Iowa copy is actually a facsimile -- a relatively skillful facsimile, but one that is easily identifiable as such in person. There is a long history of making up incomplete or damaged copies of Shakespeare folios with pieces drawn from other (genuine) folios, or with facsimiles. The title-page portrait and the preliminaries are particularly susceptible, since they are, of course, more easily damaged (especially if unbound) and particularly desirable as collector's items.

The image here doesn't quite capture the color and texture of the paper, but it's obvious even to those without much experience looking at early modern books. In fact, I hadn't really taken a close look at this copy before a class session in Special Collections during the very first book history course I taught at Iowa. A few students noticed the marked difference in the color of the paper, and after a quick glance it was clear this was a facsimile -- a fact which was then conveniently confirmed by a bookseller's note that is kept with this book, which also includes some information about its provenance:

The facsimile pages startled a few of the students (our best Shakespeare book is a fake?!) but it proved to be a good opportunity to explain the particular value -- cultural and financial -- of Shakespeare folios, and how each individual copy has its own story to tell.

But a facsimile title-page is not the only thing wrong with this copy -- or, rather, the only thing that went wrong, since in that very same class session, the somewhat precarious upper board of the binding snapped off. In a certain iconoclastic sense, it was so very satisfying to see an object of such renown (if, admittedly, not nearly in the same league as a First Folio) lying broken on the foam supports on the classroom table. And before you gasp along with my students -- both in the room at the time, and in subsequent classes to whom I've recounted this episode -- rest assured that this was not a contemporary 17th century binding, but a turn of the 20th century Riviere collector's binding:

This occasioned two important lessons for my class -- first, this is not how a Shakespeare folio in the 1630s would have looked, with the familiar (to us, anyway) red morocco and gilt edges. Surviving copies of the First Folio show that it could be sold in something as relatively cheap and plain as a simple vellum binding, or perhaps without a binding, so that it could be customized by the customer. Second, it shows that you do need to be careful when handling early modern books, even those that have been subsequently rebound -- but, perhaps of greater importance, it shows that books are made to be used, and sometimes that use results in some damage. Anyone who has handled rare books knows the dangers of doing so -- and knows the feeling of trying to turn, ever so patiently and carefully, a particularly precarious page. We've all called up books that are tied together with string, often with the bindings nearly or completely broken (or books which start out as the former and end as the latter by the time we're done). This is why I'm always grateful for libraries which generally trust the readers to take good care of the books, rather than locking them up and forcing one to deal with the (inevitably difficult and inadequate) microfilm copy.

Our broken Shakespeare was a direct result of one of the best parts about our Special Collections librarians -- they want students to come in and use the books, giving them the crucial hands-on experience that this kind of work requires. What good is a collection if we can't use it? And when something does need mending, we can call on our amazing conservation staff. This book was repaired by Gary Frost, the now retired former head of the Preservation and Conservation department, and he is now a part of the history of the Second Folio, since his name is now pasted into the back:

Gary was able to reseal the loose hinge, which you can see in the images below:

The book is now just about as good as new (better than new, in my view, considering its history) and it is now free to be displayed to and handled by our students. And it has given me a good story to tell -- I broke Shakespeare! -- a story which I have since told many times to my students and to colleagues. It is also a story that has had a profound effect on my approach to my teaching and research, as the "Breaking Books" series on this website demonstrates.

But the story does not end here, because the conservators have since built a custom box to house and to display the Second Folio:

This is no ordinary box, but rather an ingenious solution to the fragility of one of the treasures in Special Collections. The box contains its own cradle, which can be folded out to display the book:

It is designed so that the book is never actually taken out of the box:

This box is not only a testament to the creativity and capability of our conservators, but also a demonstration of the value of this artifact, and by extension to the value accorded to Shakespeare -- in particular to the version of Shakespeare presented by the Folios, which is quite literally a monumental book. The (supposedly) sacred book can now be approached on its very own altar. Or, at the very least, it ensures that my students, and especially their professor, will only break Shakespeare in a figurative, rather than a literal, sense. And so I will continue breaking Shakespeare.