Last November, librarian Rémy Cordonnier discovered a Shakespeare First Folio in the rare book section of the public library in Saint-Omer in the Department Pas-de-Calais in northern France that had been undisturbed for about 200 years. There are only a little over 230 copies of the First Folio in existence.
It is worth between £3,000,000 and £6,000,000. “It was sitting on a shelf alongside other books by English authors,” Mr. Cordonnier told The Telegraph.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is known to have written at least thirty-eight plays, as well as poetry. Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors John Heminges (1556-1630) and Henry Condell (died in 1627) edited the First Folio of his works, which they published in 1637. All three men belonged to the theatrical company called the King’s Men.
The title is Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies. It contained thirty-six of his plays.
According to the B.B.C., the First Folio is the only source for eighteen of his plays, including Macbeth. These eighteen plays “remained unpublished at his death in 1616,” The Telegraph’s Rory Mulholland explained.
The B.B.C. stated that out of 800 copies of the First Folio published, there are only 233 copies known to still exist in the world. The only other one in France is in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Library National of France), as explained on the Web site of the government body Communauté d’Agglomération de Saint-Omer (C.A.S.O.), the Agglomerated Community of Saint-Omer.
Last year, Mr. Cordonnier, who has a doctorate in art history, discovered the Saint-Omer First Folio while he was doing research in preparation for an upcoming exhibition on English authors in the collections of the Bibliothèque d’aggolmération de Saint-Omer (Agglomerated Library of Saint-Omer) that is scheduled for the summer of 2015. “This book has important historical value to world culture,” Cordonnier stated on C.A.S.O.’s Web site. “It is very close to the original text.”
“The work has several pages missing, including the title page,” Dr. Cordonnier told the press. The B.B.C. stated, “The loss of the first page and introductory material may have led to the book being catalogued as an unexceptional old edition.”
Cordonnier contacted an expert on First Folios, Eric Rasmussen, Professor and Chair of the English Department at the University of Nevada, Reno. He wrote The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2011. With Anthony James West, he wrote The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue, published by Palgrave Macmillan n 2012.
Professor Rasmussen happened to be in London at the time, and on Saturday, November 22, 2014, he took the Eurostar train from England to France and he examined the book in question. Within five minutes, he was able to authenticate it as a 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 Folio contains several handwritten notes, which may illuminate how the plays were performed in Shakespeare’s time,” stated the B.B.C. “In one scene from Henry IV, the word ‘hostess’ is changed to ‘host’ and ‘wench’ to ‘fellow’ – possibly reflecting an early performance where a female character was turned into a male.”
The Telegraph’s Rory Mulholland reported, “The name Nevill was written on the copy of the book in Saint-Omer and the librarian believes he may have been one of the many English students who attended a Jesuit college in the town, which centuries ago was one of the most important towns in northern France.”
“We already have one of the 49 existing copies of the Gutenberg bibles in our library, and now we have this other invaluable book,” said Saint-Omer Mayor François Decoster.
On February 23, 2015, the Saint-Omer First Folio was unveiled at the Globe Theatre in London. It will be exhibited there next year, which will mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Mark Rylance, who stars as the excrementitious Thomas Cromwell (died 1540) in the BBC Two’s television series Wolf Hall and was formerly Artistic Director at the Globe Theatre, was on hand for the press conference, Jack Crone reported for The Daily Mail. He revealed that when he staged the Bard of Avalon’s plays, he censored them.
Mr. Rylance dropped lines he considered anti-Semitic. “I don’t think there’s pressure [to remove] the bawdy jokes. He’s bawdier a lot more times than people realise… The pressures I feel are more for times where he will say something very antisemitic… I have to make the decision, do I include that or not. There are some very unfortunate antisemitic things that characters say… If a character says it, it doesn’t mean the author means it but since the holocaust… these statements have a lot more resonance now than they did at that time.”
The history of the Saint-Omer First Folio is tied, like the history of Saint-Omer itself, to the town’s past as a center of learning before the French Revolution. Saint-Omer is a small town by modern standards but it was an important place from medieval times until the French Revolution.
The town sprang up around a historic Benedictine abbey founded by a group of saints. There, the first of the Carolingian kings of the Franks would later force the last of the Merovingian kings to retire from public life as a monk.
The Abbey of St. Bertin had a famous library. The town’s collegiate church rose to cathedral status. The Society of Jesus founded two colleges in the town, one for the local population of Walloons and another for English Catholic boys who legally could not be educated in England.