Few literary prophecies have been so strikingly fulfilled as that of “A neuer writer” who in the preface which follows the revised title of the first edition of Troilus and Cressida (1609) predicted of Shakespeare “when hee is gone and his Commedies out of sale you will scramble for them, and set up a new English Inquisition.” It used to be thought much to say of a book that it was worth its weight in gold, but copies of the earliest Shakespeare quartos are worth their weight in banknotes and those notes by no means for the smallest sums. Nor is this money value unreasonable. It is based, as all money values will be found to be in the case of books, on intrinsic interest, the intrinsic interest, in this case, of the plays in themselves and secondly of these early editions as such. It is enhanced, moreover, as money values must always be, if they are to exceed the ordinary, by an exceptional degree of rarity.
We may take the question of rarity first, as the more quickly dealt with. How great it is this Census itself abundantly reveals. Of the earliest quarto with which Shakespeare’s name has been connected, the 1594 edition of Titus Andronicus (we may both hope and believe that Shakespeare’s share in it, if any, was of the very smallest) only one copy is known. Of the second, the first edition of Richard II, three copies are recorded, two of them in solid public ownership and so presumably beyond any chance of changing hands. Of the third, the first edition of Richard III, there are four copies and a fragment, of which two and the fragment are unpurchasable. Of the pirated Romeo and Juliet of 1597 only four copies are registered, three of them publicly owned; of the better text of 1599 as many as eleven, of which no fewer than seven are in private hands. In the case of the First Part of Henry IV there is a fragment of four leaves, which may be the scanty remains of an entire edition published early in 1598, and three copies (two in public ownership) of the edition of that year which usually passes as the first. Of Love’s Labors Lost reasons have been given in Shakespeare Folios and Quartos (pp. 70 sq.) for believing that a pirated first edition has entirely perished. Of the good text of 1598, which passes as the first, there are as many as ten copies, no fewer than six being in private hands. The fact that nearly as large a number of copies exist of this quarto as of Burby’s edition of Romeo and Juliet reinforces the argument for a pirated edition of the one play as of the other having helped, by taking off the edge of the demand, to save Burby’s from being thumbed to pieces. On the other hand it can only be reckoned a coincidence, though a very curious one, that the present ownership of the ten copies of the one play, and of the eleven of the other is with one exception exactly the
- Shakespeare Folios and Quartos: a study in the bibliography of Shakespeare’s plays, 1594–1685. By Alfred W. Pollard. With 37 illustrations. Methuen and Co. 1909.