The Shakespeare Thefts
In Search of the First Folios
By Eric Rasmussen
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 Eric Rasmussen
All rights reserved.
THE MOST HATED MAN IN ENGLAND
The Gondomar Copy
No, lord Ambassador, I'll rather keep that.
—Shakespeare's King Henry VI
England had no resident Spanish ambassador for the latter part of Queen Elizabeth's reign. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 had soured things between the two countries. Following the accession of James I in 1603, regular diplomatic relations resumed. Count Gondomar, one of the greatest private collectors of books in Spain (and one of the earliest purchasers of a First Folio), took the post of ambassador in London in 1613. In the early nineteenth century, the bulk of his collection eventually became part of the Spanish Royal Library, but the fate of his First Folio remains shrouded in mystery.
Gondomar arrived in England with a bang, sailing into Portsmouth Harbor surrounded by Spanish warships. Contrary to custom, none of the vessels lowered the Spanish flag. As one can imagine, the English were not amused. In fact, they were enraged. The ranking English naval officer threatened to launch an attack against this new armada if the colors were not struck.
Having gotten everyone's attention, Gondomar—whose motto was "Osar morir da la vida" (risk your life and dare to die)—boarded an English ship and asked that a message be sent to King James. He declared that the flotilla had entered Portsmouth in a spirit of friendship and should be treated accordingly and insisted that he could not with honor strike his sovereign's colors. Gondomar then requested that, if an English attack was imminent, he be allowed to return to his ship so that he could take part in the fight. The new ambassador had rightly guessed that the peace-loving James—a contemporary epigram described him thus: "Rex fuit Elizabeth, nunc est regina Jacobus" (Elizabeth was King, now James is Queen) —would not start a war over the presence of a flag on a diplomat's ship. He was right: The king sent word that the Spanish colors could remain at the masthead.
So Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, Count Gondomar—book lover and master manipulator—took up residence in London and soon became the most hated man in Shakespeare's England.
His contentious arrival was a harbinger of things to come. The English people were bitter about the wars with Spain, which had dragged on from 1585 to 1603, and the national coffers were still drained. Best-selling pamphlets were soon published that detailed "the wicked plots carried out by Seignior Gondomar for advancing the Popish Religion" and offered lurid accounts of "his treacherous and subtle practices for the ruin of England." To protect himself from assault by the general populace, Gondomar took the unusual precaution of being carried about London in an enclosed "litter" pulled by donkeys. His reputation was not bolstered by the well-known fact that he suffered from an anal fistula, which necessitated his use of an open-bottomed "chair of ease" (see photo section).
However, as unpopular as he was with the people, the count was no fool, and he ingratiated himself with James I, presenting himself as a kindred spirit, a scholar and lover of books. Gondomar—no doubt aware that James preferred male company —flattered the monarch, reportedly telling James, "I speak Latin badly, like a king, whereas you speak Latin well, like a scholar."
Did Gondomar speak Latin badly? We don't know, but we do know the two men became close friends: They joked and laughed and hunted together, drank from the same bottle, and called themselves "the two Diegos." We also know that throughout his life, James had close relationships with male courtiers, the true nature of which is debated by historians to this day.
In any event, Gondomar was a wily ambassador, and his obsession—indeed, the chief aim of his diplomatic mission—was a delicate one: to secure a marriage between Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and the Spanish king's youngest daughter, the Infanta, Maria Ana. James, perhaps wanting to prolong their conversations, or perhaps borrowing a move from Elizabeth's playbook and stringing the suitor along rather than confronting the obvious obstacles of religion, let the idea of a "Spanish Match" continue to be a staple of court discussion for the better part of a decade.
During that time, Gondomar feasted with great nobles (including the Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon, with whom he frequently discussed philosophy) and conscripted several highly placed members of the English nobility to serve as paid agents for Spain. A book lover to the core, he whimsically disguised their identities in his accounts with names taken from classical epics and chivalric romances. In November 1617, for instance, he records a payment of 4,000 ducats (about $8,000 in today's money) to "Priam" (Catherine Howard, Countess of Suffolk) and 2,250 ducats each to "Socrates" (Admiral William Monson) and "Florian" (Lady Drummond). It is not inconceivable that during their leisure Gondomar and King James discussed Daemonologie, a treatise the king wrote, in which he opposed the practice of witchcraft, and which provided background material for Shakespeare's Tragedy of Macbeth.
And that leads us back to that missing First Folio. In September 1622, Gondomar declared that "the decision has been taken, and with enthusiasm, that the Prince of Wales should mount Spain." The English were dead set against a Catholic princess, but Prince Charles, then twenty-two, was advised to go to Madrid to claim his bride at the very same time that work began on the first section of an ambitious nine-hundred-page folio that would bring all of the late William Shakespeare's works into print for the first time.
The first section of the folio to be put to press was the comedies. And on February 18, 1623, when Prince Charles and his friend George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham and one of his father's favorite courtiers, set out for Spain, it truly was an adventure reminiscent of Shakespeare's comedies of disguise. The men headed to Madrid wearing beards and hoods and traveled under false names (Thomas and John Smith). To quote from Twelfth Night: "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction." Despite their attempts at subterfuge, the prince's expedition was nosecret. His English subjects were deeply concerned about the physical safety of the heir to the throne. Therefore, when news of his arrival in Madrid reached England, it was celebrated with public thanksgiving, bonfires, and bell ringing.
In July, as the middle section of the Shakespeare folio containing the history plays was being printed, a historic secret marriage treaty between Charles and Maria was ratified in the Chapel Royal at Whitehall, but it left a fundamental issue unresolved: The Spanish were insisting that Charles convert to Catholicism. It turned out that the Infanta, Maria Ana, had no intention of marrying a non-Catholic. And the English steadfastly refused to acquiesce to this demand.
Charles left Spain and returned to England on October 5, brideless. On the upside, he was still Protestant and safe. A jubilant country held a service of national thanksgiving in St. Paul's Cathedral. In Jaggard's shop, meanwhile, just a stone's throw from St Paul's, Shakespeare's tragedies were coming off the press.
A few weeks later, on November 8, 1623, the magisterial collection of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, &&&; Tragedies was finally available for sale. Count Gondomar, the hated foreigner, had failed in his matchmaking, but he was one of the first purchasers. Acquisition of the magnificent book, freshly bound in old English calf with yellow silk, may have taken the sting out of the merciless satirical attacks that were now being aimed at him.
In 1624, Shakespeare's acting company, the King's Men, created a sensation performing Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess —an allegorical play that dramatized the failed negotiations for the marriage between England and Spain—smearing Gondomar as a villainous "Black Knight" engaged in a deadly game of international intrigue. (The troupe went so far as to buy discarded items from Gondomar's wardrobe for the role.) Gondomar had returned to Spain, but his successor recognized the satire and complained to King James: "There was such merriment, hubbub and applause that even if I had been many leagues away it would not have been possible for me not to have taken notice of it." It played to packed houses for nine consecutive days until the Globe Theatre was closed by order of the king himself.
While this play was amusing the masses and irritating the new ambassador, Gondomar was back home in the city of Valladolid, where his neighbor Cervantes had written Don Quixote. (Cervantes had died on April 23, 1616, the same day as William Shakespeare.) Here Gondomar was the object of attention for a different reason: His library was hailed as one of the wonders of the age. It included 3,000 titles in Latin, 900 in Italian, 262 in French, and more than 60 in English, including works prohibited by the Spanish Inquisition.
The count died not long after returning to Spain, in 1626. Although he was twice married—first to his niece and then to his cousin—Gondomar's library did not stay in the family. The majority of his spectacular collection became part of the Spanish Royal Library—but not his copy of the First Folio. It went missing.
The censors working for the Inquisition had long lists of books that were to be burned if they were imported into Spain and other lists of books that were to be expurgated of offensive material. Shakespeare's works appear to have fallen in the latter category. The fact that the Shakespeare Folio was a title of concern for the Inquisition ultimately may help us definitively identify the Gondomar First Folio. A copy of a Second Folio (also from a library in Valladolid) in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC (where it is housed along with fifty-six other copies of that edition) bears the license of Guillermo Sanchez, the censor for the Holy Office (or Inquisition), on its title page. In this particular Second Folio, the twelve leaves containing Measure for Measure were torn out. Inquisitor Sanchez no doubt saw a play about a friar (actually a disguised duke) who proposes marriage (twice) to a novitiate as anti-Catholic. Also, lines mentioning popes, priests, or Catholic doctrine were deleted throughout the folio. On the final page of Henry VIII, these lines extolling the infant princess Elizabeth (later to become Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen) are blacked out (see photo section), presumably because the censor saw them as an insult to the Virgin Mary:
She must, the saints must have her; yet a virgin.
A most unspotted lily shall she pass
To th' ground, and all the world shall mourn her.
Four comedies receive a special mark of commendation: At the head of the text of The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, Much Ado about Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice, the Inquisitor has inserted the word "good." (I don't know of any other book written in the English language about which the Spanish Inquisition made a positive literary judgment.)
All of this information leads us to wonder: Did Gondomar's First Folio receive similar editorial scrutiny from the Inquisitors? Was it also defaced? In all likelihood, as it entered Spain in the late 1620s when the Inquisition was particularly aggressive in its censorship activities, the answer to these questions is yes.
So what happened to Gondomar's First Folio? Richard Ford's Handbook for Travelers in Spain (1845) records that in 1785, Gondomar's heir, the Marquis of Malpica, sold the library to the King of Spain, Charles IV, "but as his Majesty did not pay—cosas de Espaiia [literally "the things in Spain" with the pejorative meaning "what do you expect from the Spanish?"]—some sixteen hundred volumes were kept back and left at Valladolid in the care of the bricklayer who looked after the house. These books soon disappeared."
Did the bricklayer recognize the value of the books and sell them? As Anthony James West has pointed out, in 1860, Don Pascual Gayangos, a Spanish historian and bibliographer, wrote to Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum in London, concerning a Shakespeare folio he had seen at Valladolid, where "as early as the year 1835 or thereabouts I happened to go." According to Gayangos, he had visited La Casa del Sol, "once the residence of Don Diego Sarmiento, count of Gondomar, who was ambassador in England in the time of James." The house was then in a dilapidated state and uninhabited except for an old servant and his family. The servant led Gayangos to a garret. There, in the middle of the floor of a spacious room, the windows of which had no glass, "were strewn about 500 or 600 volumes in all languages[,] principally Italian and Spanish. Most of them had armorial designs in their vellum covers and on the title-page an inscription bearing De Don Diego Sarmiento y Acuña." Gayangos recollected that he
picked up among others a folio volume being Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. I cannot remember which of the four folio editions it was, but I am almost sure that it was neither that of 1664 nor the more modern of 1685; but I recollect perfectly well that it was very well preserved, was bound in old English calf, and had on the margins much writings, with this peculiarity that in some instances there were crossings of the pen over five or six verses. I did not care much for books at the time, nor was I aware that the volume I held in my hands might be the first edition of Shakespeare's comedies.
Gayangos asked the old man how it was that "Gondomar's library having been sold to Charles IV of Spain ... these volumes were still there." He was told that five or six years after the library had been transferred to Madrid, these volumes were shipped from a castle in Galicia, another Gondomar residence, to be deposited in Valladolid.
In 1840, "at the prayer of several English friends," Gayangos wrote to a friend in Valladolid to inquire what had become of the books. "The answer was that they had been sold to mercers in the town to wrap up their goods." In 1843, Gayangos visited Valladolid again. A son of the old man, since dead, confirmed "the lamentable news.... There was not one sheet of printed paper remaining."
And so the fate of the Gondomar First Folio was sadly resolved.
Or was it?
Mrs. Humphrey Ward (born Mary Augusta Arnold, a successful novelist and the aunt of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World) reported that Gayangos told her a somewhat different story about his encounter with Gondomar's copy of the First Folio. The two were serving as examiners for the Spanish Taylorian scholarship at Oxford in 1883. According to Ward, "Senor Gayangos was born in 1809, so that in 1883 he was already an old man, though full of vigor and work. He told me the following story."
Somewhere in the thirties of the last century, he was travelling through Spain to England .... On his journey north from Madrid to Burgos ... he stopped at Valladolid for the night, and went to see an acquaintance of his, the newly appointed librarian of an aristocratic family having a "palace" in Valladolid. He found his friend in the old library of the old house, engaged in a work of destruction. On the floor of the long room was a large brasero in which the new librarian was burning up a quantity of what he described as useless and miscellaneous books, with a view to the rearrangement of the library. The old sheepskin or vellum bindings had been stripped off, while the printed matter was burning steadily and the room was full of smoke. There was a pile of old books whose turn had not yet come lying on the floor. Gayangos picked one up. It was a volume containing the plays of Mr. William Shakespeare, and published in 1623. In other words, it was a copy of the First Folio and, as he declared to me, in excellent preservation. At that time he knew nothing about Shakespeare bibliography. He was struck, however, by the name of Shakespeare, and also by the fact that, according to an inscription inside it, the book had belonged to Count Gondomar, who had himself lived in Valladolid and collected a large library there. But his friend the librarian attached no importance to the book, and it was to go into the common holocaust with the rest. Gayangos noticed particularly, as he turned it over, that its margins were covered with notes in a seventeenth-century hand. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Shakespeare Thefts by Eric Rasmussen. Copyright © 2011 Eric Rasmussen. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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