Two of the most important books in the English language were printed four centuries ago: the King James Bible and William Shakespeare's first folio. Today, that first collection of Shakespeare's plays would fetch a king's ransom; and in the early 1900s, one man was willing to spend his entire fortune to own as many of them as he could. His name was Henry Folger and he was a successful businessman who worked his way to the top of Standard Oil. Folger managed to buy 82 first folios out of only a couple of hundred that survived from the original 1623 printing.
In the new book The Millionaire and the Bard, Andrea Mays chronicles Folger's obsessive passion. Mays tells NPR's Renee Montagne that part of what makes the folios special is that, in Shakespeare's time, big, elegant books took months to print, so the task was often reserved for religious works, histories and Latin and Greek classics — not plays. But today the value of Shakespeare's first folio is immeasurable.
"Had this book not been published," Mays says, "about half of the plays that we know would never have been known to us, including Macbeth, including [The] Merry Wives of Windsor ... The Tempest. There would have been no Caliban, no Prospero had this book not been published."
On why Shakespeare's plays were printed into folios
John Heminges and Henry Condell were fellow actors with Shakespeare — Shakespeare was an actor as well as a playwright — and as a tribute to him they collected these plays, because the plays that were published were often published by pirates who didn't have authority. There were no copyright laws until 1709 and other theater companies would send, for example, someone to the audience to write down the words of the play and then they would put that together and they would publish it.
So Hamlet is published twice this way. If you look at the "To be or not to be" soliloquy in each of those versions, it's quite different than what we remember from high school because the version we have in high school is the one that Heminges and Condell edited and said, "OK, no, it's not this way; it's that way."
On how Folger became interested in Shakespeare and collecting the folios
He was born in Brooklyn, mid-19th century, to not a wealthy family. He went to prep school in Brooklyn, then he went to Amherst. And while he was at Amherst, he listens to a lecture by [Ralph Waldo] Emerson then starts looking up Emerson's speeches and finds this speech about Shakespeare. ... He'd been reading the plays already, maybe this is worth more study. When he goes to work for [Standard Oil], he decides to go to an auction house and he knows that some Shakespeareana is for sale and he ends up buying a fourth folio, hammered down to him at $107.50. Not a first folio, but a fourth folio, which is what he could afford. And in fact he couldn't even afford it; he had to use sort of layaway.
On how Folger felt about the folios
These were not fetish objects for him. He read them; he questioned the text; he found them very personal. They taught you about life and love and jealousy and resentment and competition and joy and marriage, and he saw all of that in the plays.
On Folger's four-year effort to buy one first folio, which he ended up paying $48,000 — or almost a year's salary — for
Coningsby Sibthorp, a great English name, owned this copy. He brought it into an antique book dealer, either for appraisal or for renovation, and the dealer made Folger aware that this was the owner of this copy. And Folger said, "Call him, see if you can find out if he would be willing to sell the copy." And over four years, the Englishman said, "No, no, no. Um, maybe if you offered me this much. Contact me once a year around Christmastime and I'll let you know if I've changed my mind."
Folger was thinking, "I'm American. If I just offer him enough money he'll sell." But on many occasions, Folger pushed a little too hard and the Englishman took this as an affront and he said, "No, try again in a year." And you know, at long last at the end he ended up paying almost twice what he originally thought he was going to pay for this copy.
On where Folger kept his collection, given that, despite his great wealth, he never built himself a house
He lived in a rented town house in Brooklyn. They had rented furniture. ... He probably thumbed through everything that he bought and then took it to the basement, wrapped it in paper, put it into a Standard Oil case and then shipped it off to a warehouse in Brooklyn or Manhattan. And he had warehouse rooms for 30 years that he rented where this stuff was all stored away until the [Folger Shakespeare Library] was built [in Washington, D.C.]
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There was a moment four centuries ago when two of the most important books in the English language were printed for the first time, the King James Bible and Shakespeare's first folio. Today, that first collection of Shakespeare's plays would fetch a king's fortune, to say the least. And one man was willing to spend his fortune around the turn of the 20th century to amass the world's greatest collection of first folios. He was Henry Folger, and a new book chronicles his passion. It's called "The Millionaire And The Bard." And it inspired my colleague, Renee Montagne, to make a trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library here in Washington.
RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: When I pushed through the heavy doors of the Folger, I could see down the dark, wood-paneled hall a man motioning to us to come his way. Oddly, he was keeping one leg well inside an office. Turns out, librarian Daniel De Simone didn't want to leave one of the most precious books in the world unattended, understandable since a Shakespeare first folio has sold at auction for more than $6 million. But once inside, De Simone set down onto a table an impressively large, leather-bound book and, with a big smile, urged me to get closer.
DANIEL DE SIMONE: This is what I wanted you to touch. Now, I just opened this up randomly.
MONTAGNE: My favorite play, though, "Twelfth Night."
DE SIMONE: Yeah, well...
MONTAGNE: I'm serious.
DE SIMONE: Well, good.
MONTAGNE: I'm serious.
DE SIMONE: And just, you can see - let me hold that microphone, and just feel the quality of the paper. Flip through a few pages, and you'll have this sense of the magnificent nature of this book. Yeah.
MONTAGNE: This library houses 82 of these first editions of only about a couple of hundred first folios that survived from the original printing in 1623. The book in front of me is the rarest of the rare because few others can be traced to their original owner.
DE SIMONE: This is an ownership mark. The mark of ownership here is somebody called Augustine Vincent. Here, in a little handwriting is, given to me by William Jaggard, the printer, in 1623.
MONTAGNE: I'm now touching pages from the first folio of "Hamlet." OK.
DE SIMONE: It's quite an experience.
MONTAGNE: It's very - quite cool.
DE SIMONE: (Laughter).
MONTAGNE: In Shakespeare's time, big, elegant books like this, which would take many months to print, were reserved for religious works, histories, Latin and Greek classics - but not, heaven forefend, plays.
ANDREA MAYS: Playwrights were viewed as just sort of one step above prostitution, an amusement for the common folk. And this was why Shakespeare was able to write play after play after play, and the public soaked it all up.
MONTAGNE: That's Andrea Mays, who wrote "The Millionaire And The Bard." Days after I visited the Folger Library, she sat down with me to talk about Henry Folger and his lifelong hunt for first folios, which preserve some of the greatest writing of all time.
MAYS: Prior to his death, only half of Shakespeare's plays had been published. Had this book not been published, about half of the plays that we know would never have been known to us, including "Macbeth," including "Merry Wives Of Windsor."
MONTAGNE: "The Tempest."
MAYS: "The Tempest." There would have been no "Caliban," no "Prospero" had this book not been published.
MONTAGNE: Let's talk for a moment about Henry Folger. The name might not resonate except, perhaps, for the name Folgers Coffee, a product that his uncle created. And Henry Folger himself was a businessman, a very successful one - rose to the top of Standard Oil. That's how he made his wealth. But that - I mean, these are your words; his hoarder's impulse was still in search of a grand obsession. How did he settle on collecting Shakespeare?
MAYS: He went to Amherst and listens to a lecture by Emerson, then starts looking up Emerson's speeches and finds this speech about Shakespeare. And he says, OK, maybe this is worth more study. When he goes to work for the oil company, he decides to go to an auction house. And he ends up buying a fourth folio, hammered down to him at $107.50 - not a first folio but a fourth folio, which is what he could afford. And, in fact, he couldn't even afford it. He had to use sort of layaway. He had to pay over time.
MONTAGNE: And eventually, Henry Folger would go to great lengths to acquire a first folio. And, in fact, at the library - at the Folger library - I was able to thumb through one of his most precious folios. Can you give us the short version of Henry Folger's four-year effort to convince its British owner to part with this Vincent copy?
MAYS: Absolutely. Coningsby Sibthorp - what a great English name - owned this copy. And Folger said, find out if he would be willing to sell. And over four years, the Englishman said, no, no, no; contact me once a year around Christmas time, and I'll let you know if I've changed my mind. But on many occasions, Folger pushed a little too hard. And the Englishman took this as an affront. And he said, no, try again in a year. And, you know, at long last, at the end, he ended up paying almost twice what he originally thought he was going to pay for this copy.
MONTAGNE: One thing that was quite fascinating about him was that at a time when he finally did have great wealth, his peers were building these mansions along Fifth Avenue. They were up at Newport building seaside cottages that were, you know, 50 rooms. He - what? - he lived in a rented apartment in Brooklyn.
MAYS: He lived in a rented townhouse in Brooklyn. They had rented furniture.
MONTAGNE: And didn't even have enough room to have a grand library, which would have been the thing at the time...
MONTAGNE: To house this amazing collection. So he didn't even get to do what I was able to do at the Folger, which is stand there and just thumb through these precious folios.
MAYS: Right. He probably thumbed through everything that he bought and then took it to the basement, wrapped it in paper, put it into a Standard Oil case and then shipped it off to a warehouse in Brooklyn or Manhattan.
MONTAGNE: When it came to this passion that Henry Folger had, how do you think Shakespeare affected him that spoke to him in a way that had to have been larger than just these beautiful old books?
MAYS: Oh, absolutely. These were not fetish objects for him. He read them. He questioned the text. He found them very personal. They taught you about life and love and jealousy and resentment and competition and joy and marriage. And he saw all of that in the plays.
MONTAGNE: Andrea Mays is the author of the new book, "The Millionaire And The Bard," Henry Folger's obsessive hunt for Shakespeare's first folio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.