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USC library acquires rarest folio of Shakespeare’s plays

The latest gift to USC's Special Collections gives the Cooper Library three of the four rare folios of plays by William Shakespeare
John Taylor
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The latest gift to USC's Special Collections gives the Cooper Library three of the four rare folios of plays by William Shakespeare

A Chicago donor has given USC's Cooper Library a collection of William Shakespeare's plays published in 1664.

William Shakespeare’s classics “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “King Lear” are among the immortal plays contained in a recent valuable donation to the special collections of the University of South Carolina’s Cooper Library.

Beginning in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, his plays were collected in a series of four large books, called folios. Highly sought after by collectors, a donor has given the USC library a copy of the rarest collection, the third folio in the series.

English Professor Nina Levine explained what makes this gift so important. “Now our library has three of the four folios published in the 17th century. So that in itself gives us almost a complete set,” she said. “Maybe someday a donor will come along and donate a first folio, but now we have the second, third and fourth. So that’s significant in itself, just in terms of holdings, but it’s also significant for… it’s a material record of the reception of Shakespeare, and we get a sense of Shakespeare’s popularity in his own time.”

What makes the third folio so rare is that two years after it was published in 1664, the Great London Fire occurred, presumably destroying many copies that may have been in bookshops and publishing houses. Only 150 remain in existence, Levine said. For the record, there are 228 copies of the first folio, 364 of the second and 329 of the fourth. Many are in the possession of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. (which has 19 copies of the third folio) and a library in Japan, with others scattered among collectors and universities worldwide.

USC Dean of Libraries Tom McNally said the folios were essentially consecutive editions of the plays. “Shakespeare’s plays weren’t really written down anywhere, so the publication of the first folio was a way to capture what he’d written,” he said. “The first folio has many of the plays. Then the second folio, which you can think of as the second edition, really was a corrected version of the first folio. They cleaned up spelling mistakes and things like that. Then the third folio comes along and it’s the ‘new and expanded’ edition. So they just added on seven new plays to the second folio.”

But according to Levine, six of those new plays almost certainly weren’t really Shakespeare’s, though scholars are still scrutinizing them. “It turns out only one of them is attributed to Shakespeare, and that’s ‘Pericles.’ And the rest are not. Today we’re using pretty sophisticated databases…and computational stylistics to determine authorship. Maybe our databases will get even better and we will discover that they are by Shakespeare, but we’re not at that point yet.”

Levine said the folio has great cultural, as well as monetary, value. “So suddenly people are not just dependent on seeing Shakespeare on the stage, but that they can sit in their room and read Shakespeare, and reading Shakespeare is a very different experience than seeing Shakespeare, the sort of power and intricacy and quickness of Shakespeare’s language.”

Elizabeth Suddeth, USC Associate Dean for Special Collections, added that this folio is special not only for Shakespeare’s writings, but for notations written in the margins by past readers. “What also is exceptional about the copy…is that it has annotations throughout, and that in itself is something interesting to scholars,” she said.

“We’ve had a number of scholars here, and also students, who have looked at marginalia (as this study is called) in books. We’ve had two or three experts on our campus look at it, and one visiting scholar happened to be here and took a look and found it very interesting.”

McNally described his excitement when the Chicago-based donor called with the offer of the folio. “I said, ‘I’m on my way and I’ll be in Chicago tomorrow.’ I drove to Charlotte, I got on an airplane, I went right to Jeff’s (the donor) office, I took the folio, I put it into my bag, I took a cab to O’Hare and I flew right back to Charlotte that day.

“When somebody says to you, ‘I’ve got a third folio,’ you don’t just wait around and say ‘I’ll get up there in a couple of weeks.’ You go get it, and I held it in my lap all the way home. I wouldn’t put in in an overhead or under the seat or anything,” he chuckled.

The library dean added a little more humor to the story of the acquisition. “In fact that night, I couldn’t get back to the library in time to put it in the library’s vault. So I kept the bag with the folio in it in my bed next to me in case the fire alarm went off, so that no matter what, I would jump up and take the folio out the front door with me.”

Having the third folio increases USC’s status among libraries and universities, Levine said. “If Harvard has two copies and Yale has two copies and we have one, I think that really speaks to the holdings that we have,” she said, noting the rarified company the University’s collection puts it in. “And the other thing it speaks to is the kind of cultural responsibility and role of university libraries, preserving our culture as we go forward.” 

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Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.