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Author Of The Month: Andrea Mays Griffith

Published: December 1, 2015

The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio

Andrea Mays Griffith, lecturer, Economics

Arriving last May from Simon and Schuster, the 320-page The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio details how Gilded Age American industrialist Henry Clay Folger hunted copies of the First Folio—the 1623 publication collecting 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, without which half of these marvels would be lost. A recent sale of a First Folio drew $5 million. Seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, Shakespeare’s business partners John Heminges and Henry Condell gathered copies of the plays and manuscripts, then edited and published them. The Millionaire and the Bard is a literary detective story, the tale of two mysterious men—a brilliant author and his obsessive collector—separated by space and time. It is a tale of two cities—Jacobean London and Gilded Age New York. Mays first encountered Folger and his First Folios while working for the Reagan Administration when she moved into an apartment four blocks from the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Folger is a world-renowned research center on Shakespeare with the world’s largest collection of First Folios. When she began her research for The Millionaire and the Bard, she found the library had almost everything she needed. “There are 244 known copies of the First Folio,” explained the member of the university since 1985. “The Folger Shakespeare Library has 82 of them. In 1991 and 2001, they hosted spectacular exhibits of the First Folios. People who study them go there.” Folger was obsessed with the book as object. “Many collectors like JP Morgan and Henry Huntington would collect a single First Folio. They only wanted a copy if it was of ‘the best.’ Folger would take anything,” she explained. “He collected excellent copies and crushed copies with missing covers. Some were cheap and some were expensive. His purpose was to compare each copy and see if there were differences.” Mays pointed out that nearly 50 percent of the plays written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries have disappeared. “We have copies of about 50 percent of the plays talked about by period diarists. That is what we would have had with

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Shakespeare as well if not for the First Folio,” she said. The publication of the First Folio “was the beginning of the apotheosis of Shakespeare.” While Folger’s original goal was to find discrepancies between different Folios, what scholars at the Folger have found was something different: how books were printed in the 17th century. “Every Folio is unique,” she said. “The printing process began with a proof sheet which a copy editor would check for misspellings. They made changes while the presses still ran copies. These single proof sheets are very valuable. There were 999 pages with an almost infinite combination of these pages.” Mays earned her B.S. from the State University of New York and her M.A. in economics from UCLA.