A COPY of Shakespeare’s First Folio found gathering dust in a small French town could provide clues to how the plays were first performed.
The rare book was discovered in a library in Saint-Omer, near Calais in northern France, where it has apparently lain untouched and unread for 200 years.
The Folio is one of the most important books ever published and without its publication many of the Bard’s best known plays would never have survived. It was originally printed in 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death, having been collated by Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell,
It is thought that 800 copies were produced, of which around 230 are believed to still exist, and on the rare opportunities they come up for sale they can fetch millions.
The newly-found copy was discovered by librarians planning an exhibition on the historic links between the region and England.
Librarian Remy Cordonnier said: “It was very emotional to realise we had a copy of one of the most famous books in the world
“The work has several pages missing, including the title page. The loss of the first page and introductory material may have led to the book being catalogued as an unexceptional old edition.”
Mr Cordonnier, who runs the library’s rare books collection, did not at first realise the significance of his find but
believing it could possibly be a First Folio he contacted Shakespeare expert Professor Eric Rasmussen of the University of Nevada, who happened to be in London working at the British Library.
Prof Rasmussen immediately jumped on the Eurostar to France and authenticated the historic, but rather battered book, within five minutes.
Speaking to the New York Times, Prof Rasmussen said: “This is huge. 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.”
Mr Cordonnier is still coming to terms with the shock of finding the Folio.
He said: “It was very emotional to realise we had a copy of one of the most famous books in the world. I was already imagining the reaction it would cause.”
The Folio contains several handwritten notes, which could shed light on how the plays were performed in Shakespeare’s day.
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 library says it has no plans to sell the book but intends to display it as the centrepiece of the forthcoming exhibition of its rare books by English authors.
Paul Edmondson, head of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said: “This new discovery sounds interesting because of the annotations in one of the Henry IV plays and the 30 missing pages. It would be good to know more about these and what that might tell us about possible early readers, especially in light of Saint-Omer’s Jesuit tradition.
“The identification of this previously unknown copy will quite rightly be a cause of national celebration among our French Shakespeare colleagues.’