The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World

By PAUL COLLINS

In recent years several authors have taken on the daunting challenge of biographizing Shakespeare. From the scrappy Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt to the highbrow ruminations of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, books abound that interweave the meagre details of Shakespeare’s life with the rich history of his time, seeking ways to account for the eruption of his singular genius. In fact, the motivations of readers and publishers in the fraught era following the Bard’s lifetime may have more to tell us about the transmission of that genius and the construction of its legacy. In The Book of William, Paul Collins unclasps the secret book of the First Folio — the first posthumously-published edition of the Bard’s plays and the chief source for his work — and reads matter deep and dangerous. For this legacy of world literature would have been lost in nature’s infinite book of secrecy were it not for the greed of early publishers, the burgeoning enthusiasm of critics and the public, and the tender ministrations of collectors. Collins, a professor and book sleuth in the McSweeney’s orbit, follows the fate of the few surviving First Folios from seventeenth-century printshops to Sotheby’s auction room, watching as copies slip through the fingers of robber barons and rare books librarians alike. Scholars have long known the riches to be sought in the material history of books; in the story of the early editions of Shakespeare’s works, Collins finds dukedom large enough for the general reader as well.