There are only 274 surviving copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio from the original print run of 750 copies in 1623.
It is no surprise then, that when a Shakespeare First Folio comes up for auction, it is such a rarity it generates heightened enthusiasm and expectation.
My friend, Francis Walhgren, was the auctioneer at Christie’s New York when a Shakespeare First Folio came under the hammer there in 2001. On the day of that auction, Francis was rather uncharacteristically anxious and perturbed. The date of the auction provides a clue to the source of his discomfiture: 9 October 2001. It was barely a month following the tragic events of 9/11. New York City and the world were still in a state of shock. The decision had been made that the auction should proceed as scheduled, however, expectations were considerably lowered and the mood decidedly sombre.
Francis begun hesitantly and not a single bid was rendered for what felt like an eternity. Then, the telephone rang. Suddenly, a hopeful bid from an anonymous caller. And then, another and another. Soon, the room was alight! Now in his stride, Francis and the auction soared. The first bidder, who in the end won the First Folio, issued a statement saying: “This great book had to be bought today. It is a cornerstone of Western society. If it had been left unsold those who wish to demoralize us in the West would have won.”
For me, this speaks volumes to the cultural significance of Shakespeare’s works and words. We are therefore indebted to his friends, Heminges and Condell, who dutifully compiled his papers following his death in 1616, and produced an edition of all his plays that we now call the First Folio.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Shakespeare is responsible for providing the first evidence of nearly 2,000 words in the English language. Where would we be without such words as ‘bedroom’ ‘eyeball’, ‘farmhouse’, ‘delighted,’ or my favourite Shakespeare word, ‘puppy- dog’?
And, where would Shakespeare have been without The Holy Bible? The Bible’s influence upon Shakespeare was direct and immediate, literal and cultural. It was part of the air he breathed. The best example of this comes from the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew 7:2 states:
'For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.'
Shakespeare seems to have been particularly struck by this passage, as he centred not one, but at least two of his most provocative dramas on the action of ‘judgment’ and ‘judging others’: The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure. Shakespeare’ s referencing of this text from Matthew is clearly indicated in the title Measure for Measure.
The King James Bible, commissioned by James I in 1604 and first published in 1611, is, as Lord Melvyn Bragg describes it, ‘the book of books’ - the most influential book in the world. It is the text that has most radically shaped the English-speaking world. The Bible is worthy of love and respect for a number of reasons, as Christians believe the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and not least because it was a source of inspiration for Shakespeare.