Not long after the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library opened in 1973, I noticed an article in the local paper mentioning that the library, part of the University of Toronto, owned a rare book indeed, the First Folio. the First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after the Bard’s death, contained the first complete compilation of the plays. It is the ur text for modern productions of Shakespeare. I decided to visit the library to see and possibly handle the book, which according to the article, if memory serves, was one of four or five extant copies.

So I went early on a sunny Saturday morning, filled out a request slip and took a seat in the nearly empty building. Presently, a librarian pushed a steel cart to my table and placed the book in front of me. She gave me a sheet of paper and one of those little golf pencils, to take notes, if I wished, and instructed me not to write on the book, and left me alone with the volume. I could have done anything to it.

Well, it was quite large and heavy, with very thick boards, and as I opened it, I saw dark, nut brown leaves in sewn signatures, with crooked, barely legible type, all of it handset. And all in good condition; no loose or damaged pages. On the title page was the famous Droeshout engraving of Mr. William Shakespeare, as he was identified.

Following that was the extraordinary Preface written in prose and verse by six men, including John Heminge and Henry Condell of Shakespeare’s acting company, and a long poem by rival playwright and friend (sic) Ben: Johnson. as his name was printed. The purpose of all of this was to introduce the playwright to the world and extol him to the reader, and in one sentence, to encourage the reader to buy the book, which must have been very expensive to print. It sold for one pound, roughly $200 today.

My first and lasting impression of the prefatory matter was that there was indeed a man named William Shakespeare who wrote the plays attributed to him, and that he was well admired, loved and missed. If Shakespeare was a fraud, the confabulation of another author such as the Earl of Oxford (dead in 1604) and his friends, then it was a very expensive fraud. Personally, I don’t think that Ben Johnson and actors who performed the plays would have put their names to a fraud. If ever there was a book that strove mightily to impress upon the reader the identity and nature and achievement of the author, the First Folio is all of that.

So there I was, handling the great book put together by men who had known the Bard, shared a drink and swapped stories with him. Who had handled that particular book, one of a thousand printed? There was no way of knowing, of course. But the vibes were there, that special connection to the man and his world.

I stayed an hour or so, took notes, and returned the treasure to its keepers. It was a morning well spent.

As it turns out, there are some 228 copies of the First Folio in existence, at last count. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, holds the largest collection with 79 copies. Only 40 of the 228 are said to be complete copies. Even then, the errors are not identical from book to book. It is believed that five typesetters did the job, each with different spelling and grammar. And the veracity of the multiple sources is questionable. So this Bard’s Bible shares some of the mysteries and vagaries of the Holy Bible. Each copy has been extensively documented, and each is worth in the millions of dollars.

I have written about this experience in some detail in my poem “In The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.”

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