Making the world safe for Shakespeare, one document at a time….

Posted By on September 14, 2011

This is just “in” from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust fund — which, as many are aware, has recently launched a new cyber initiative termed by some the 60 talking heads of Professor Wells.  Not that we would ever call it that — after all, a talking head is a talking head.

Let us hope they talk some sense.

The Trust Fund is into fun stuff like “curating stories from Shakespeare’s work, life, and times.”

I wonder how much the Fund paid for that marvelous slogan. However much they paid, it was a bargain. It sounds so…..delightfully postmodern — “curating stories.”  It is a little like marinating them, but not quite. The stories are in our archive, just come and find them.

I was amused therefore to see what the Birthplace terms “stories from Shakespeare’s work, life, and time” suitable for high tech. curatorial intervention:  The example of this mid-19th century description of the sale condition of a 1623 folio naturally caught my eye and provoked my mind to the verge of intellectual sedition:

“What portions of your volume, if any, are missing?”

To which the answer is readily supplied in a lovely 19th century black ink hand: “Ben Jonson’s verses facing.”

Now, isn’t that even just a little bit interesting?

It seems a reasonable premise given the information given in the article that the “verses” in question are those facing the Droeshout engraving. Perhaps they are those “To the Memory of My Beloved” on the subsequent leaves. But it sounds like they are the verses “To the reader in General” across from the Droeshout.

Now a cynic might react to this sort of PR bluff by wondering what in the hell the Birthplace trust fund is doing promoting a 19th century document as one containing “stories from Shakespeare’s work, life, and times.” It would be difficult to find a more cynical kind of anachronistic logic, and one can only hope that in the future the authorship debate will not be conducted through such airy public relations slogans.

On the other hand, the thought might occur that perhaps there is in this 19th century volume some latent “story from Shakespeare’s times,” if not from his life or — directly — work. I’m always interested in bibliographical variation.  Its quite likely that in this case, assuming that the leaf in question is the very first one printed in the book (after any flyleaves), that its missing status is a result of normal wear patterns, in which a first or last leaf is most likely to be lost.

But there is a pattern in the first folio bibliography, of equal interest, that doesn’t result from natural wear. Some of the approximately 238 surviving folios, as I recall (no, I don’t have a source, so don’t sue me if my memory’s faulty:), contain neither Jonson’s verses nor the Droeshout itself.

Now, this is an odd kettle of fish.

Why should some of the folios lack this prefatory material?

Could the Droeshout and Jonson’s adjoining verses have been an….afterthought……?

Now that’s a question you aren’t likely to hear in your Shakespeare class.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


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