The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Search for Shakespeare's First Folio
By Andrea Mays
Simon and Schuster May 2015
Read via Netgalley
When William Shakespeare died, many of his plays almost died with him. During the Elizabethan era, plays were not published. They were passed around so the players could memorize them and then they were discarded. A few years later, two of his fellow players decided to gather his plays together in a tribute to their talented friend. The result was the First Folio. Today it is worth millions of dollars but, at the time of publication, it was a unique prize for a few wealthy nobles or contemporaries of Shakespeare to keep in their libraries. 300 years later, an American businessman named William Clay Folger decided to start collecting Shakespeare's plays. He and his wife Emily quietly began to bid on item after item, until they caught the attention and ire of the British. Folger was determined to achieve his dream of an entire library full of Shakespeare's plays and memorabilia, but could he succeed when the British decided that he was stealing their literary treasures?
I was an English and Theatre double major in college, so I like to think that I know a fair amount about Shakespeare and his plays. It turns out that I was sort of right. While I enjoyed reading about Shakespeare's life, there was little information that was news to me. But then I read the chapters about the creation of the First Folio and it was some fascinating stuff. Paper was extremely rare and books were often ripped apart and used to bind a new book. Did you know that many Shakespeare lovers just got rid of their First Folios when the Second Folio was published, despite mistakes and omissions in that later edition?
The portions of the book that follow the Folgers are very interesting as well. Andrea Mays brings Emily and William to life, showing their quiet admiration for each other and the beautiful work of Shakespeare. It's not meant to be humorous, but there is something funny about Folger's placid reaction to the angry British literary community. His response was something along the lines of, "Well, I bought them. None of you wanted to bid on them and I had money. So I bought them." He found nothing bizarre about bidding on literary treasures and then putting them in storage, sometimes without even seeing them.
The Millionaire and The Bard is a vital read for anyone who loves Shakespeare and anyone who loves to learn. The reader who picks this book will be treated to new insight about the life and work of the Bard, publishing in the 17th century, and the quiet and determined lives of a couple who loved Shakespeare. I will definitely be making a trip to the Folger Library at some point to see the legacy that Henry and Emily Folger spent a lifetime creating.