‘No profits grow where no pleasure is taken’: Shakespeare’s Complete First Folio sold for $10 million to Private Owner
Contributor Sofia Gallucci-Giles discusses the $10 million sale of Shakespeare’s first folio and whether such literary gold should be in the hands of the public domain
A rare find and of immense literary value; a complete copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio sold last week for a record breaking $9,978,000 at an auction house in New York. The 1623 volume of the complete works of Shakespeare is not only one of only 235 copies that are known to have survived but has now also become one of the most expensive works of literature sold at auction.
The seller, who has owned the copy since the 1960’s, is a private college in Oakland, California and sold the literary rarity to rare book collector Stephan Loewentheil to ‘serve as a centrepiece of a great collection of intellectual achievements’.
Complete first folios of the works of literary giants come few and far between. Only 235 of the original 750 First Folios of Shakespeare that were printed, survive today. A folio refers to a full volume of work by an author, which in this case, includes 18 plays of the Bards that weren’t otherwise published featuring Macbeth, Twelfth Night and The Tempest. If not for the First Folio, it would be unlikely that these plays would have survived in smaller quarto editions thus highlighting the literary significance of these Folio editions for the survival of great pieces of literature and early modern drama.
It is with this understanding of a Folio’s cultural and academic importance then, that the title quote from The Taming of the Shrew ‘No profits grow where pleasure is taken’ is remarkably fitting. Is it fair that these editions are sold to private sellers for millions of pounds or should they stay within the public domain? Though Mr Loewentheil states his reasoning for his collection as purely for pleasure and personal interest, he becomes one of only 6 owners of a Folio with their copy in their private hands. I emphasise the world complete folio as only 56 of the 235 surviving copies are known to actually be complete, of which the other 50 copies are owned by institutions in the US and the UK for educational purposes.
As an English student and Shakespeare enthusiast myself, I’d like to personally stress the importance of these works to be kept in the public domain. Shakespeare, perhaps more so than any other writer, transcends national boundaries and it is thus quite surprising that there are not folios surviving in any other part of the world beyond the UK and US. We all associate Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, with that country yet there are no copies of the Folio belonging to Denmark. Surely, in the same vain that we keep objects of cultural importance in museums, Shakespeare’s rare folios also belong in the public domain as opposed to private collections?
Shakespeare speaks of the human condition within each and every one of his plays
There is often a snobbery with Shakespeare; it being inaccessible and difficult to understand and therefore belonging to the elite. It is not just as an English scholar but as someone born and raised in Shakespeare’s hometown that I say this is simply not the case. Shakespeare speaks of the human condition within each and every one of his plays; it is the reason why his work has remained the most prized pieces of literature ever. He speaks of revenge, first love, familial jealousy, rhetoric and power, corruption, deceit; every facet which is inherently intrinsic to the human condition. Beyond just some fancy words in old English which upon initialreading can be difficult to understand, Shakespeare speaks to the every day man.
You could read Shakespeare in Stratford-Upon-Avon or Singapore, London or Las Vegas; his work will always touch home for the reader because he speaks about humanity. With his greatness, popularity, magnitude and relevance that surely, his work belongs to those it speaks to most, rather than the individual.