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Shakespeare as Object of Desire

Shakespeare left little behind other than the printed versions of his plays: only a few signatures of his remain, placed on legal documents. Collectors have been venerating the printed versions of the words he created since not long after his death. The prime example of this is the First Folio, the first collection of Shakespeare’s works published in 1623, seven years after his death. Between 1800 and 1950, the price of a First Folio doubled every fifty years. Since then, prices have gone up even faster: a First Folio today is worth about six million dollars. Named after the large “folio” size of its pages, it is our only source for 18 of Shakespeare’s plays.

Other texts come from smaller, “quarto” sized publications, which contained individual plays.  Printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, they are often black-market editions, produced by rival theater companies who sometimes even sent individuals to copy down plays as they were being put on. Unsurprisingly, these copies are often flawed textually, with words, lines, even scenes and acts garbled or missing entirely.

Both the folio and quarto copies of Shakespeare’s plays are extremely valuable, and have been sold and re-sold for centuries. Over the centuries, they have been bound and re-bound in order to celebrate their illustrious contents, although in many cases the pages, especially of the quartos, are in poor condition--a marker of the fact that they were originally heavily used objects.

Shakespeare as Object of Desire