Excerpt – “Ghosts, Holes, Rips and Scrapes: Shakespeare in 1619, Bibliography in the Longue Durée” by Zachary Lesser

book cover imageWhat’s the most influential book for Shakespeare scholarship? The First Folio of 1623 immediately comes to mind for many. However, there’s another book, less famous but still incredibly important for Shakespeare scholars: Edward Gwynn’s set of Pavier Quartos, found in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection.

Zachary Lesser takes a close look at the plays bound together in this volume in his recently published Ghosts, Holes, Rips and Scrapes: Shakespeare in 1619, Bibliography in the Longue Durée. The excerpt below discusses the book’s provenance and significance.

Ghosts, Holes, Rips and Scrapes was produced as part of a publishing partnership between Penn Press and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Lesser is the Edward W. Kane Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and a general editor of The Arden Shakespeare (fourth series).


Our modern understanding of Shakespeare as an author, of what he wrote and how, depends on the development in the early twentieth century of a new way of looking at books. And our modern understanding of printed books as physical objects containing clues to their own process of production—the scholarly discipline of bibliography—would look very different without Shakespeare. At the foundation of this intersection is a narrative of detection and discovery: “traditionally accepted facts” are overturned by a “revolutionary hypothesis,” and the “hypnotic influence” of old ways of thinking is pierced by the “critical mind” informed by bibliographic knowledge.

This foundational moment came in 1908, with W. W. Greg’s modestly entitled essay “On Certain False Dates in Shakespearian Quartos.” Greg’s friendly critique of A. W. Pollard’s inability to see beyond “traditionally accepted facts,” and “the more revolutionary hypothesis” that Greg advanced instead, were central to establishing what came to be called, in a typically modernist formulation, the New Bibliography. This approach to Shakespeare’s texts reigned for much of the twentieth century, but over the past several decades scholars have engaged in a sustained critique of its methods, ideology, and unexamined assumptions. Even as we have sought our own “revolutionary hypotheses,” however, the “hypnotic influence” of “traditionally accepted facts” has been as hard for us to escape as it was for Pollard. In trying to overturn the arguments of the New Bibliographers, moreover, we have often relied on the very evidence they provided us, imposing our own beliefs—which therefore remain, in important if unseen ways, their beliefs— on what we see in Shakespeare’s books.

This book is an extended case study, with I hope broad implications, of one of the most important books in the history of Shakespeare studies. Not the First Folio, which has been analyzed more intensely and celebrated more devotionally than any other book printed in early modern England. Rather, the book that started Pollard and Greg on their quests to uncover the truth hiding behind “traditionally accepted facts” was an ordinary-looking quarto volume that Pollard first saw in 1902. It bound together ten plays, or nine playbooks (since one of them is made up of two plays), all in some way connected to Shakespeare. Three of these plays are linked by continuous signatures, the printer’s pagination system: The Whole Contention betweene the two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke (which comprises versions of the second and third parts of Henry VI) and Pericles. All the other plays in the group have their own run of signatures: A Yorkshire Tragedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, Henry V, Sir John Oldcastle, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While Yorkshire Tragedy and Oldcastle are not now considered Shakespearean, they both have Shakespeare’s name on the title page, although Henry V, like all the other early quartos of that play, does not. Pericles, Yorkshire Tragedy, and Merry Wives are dated 1619; but Whole Contention is undated, and the other five plays are dated either 1600 or 1608. Five of the playbooks list “T. P.” as the publisher—the initials belong to Thomas Pavier—but the others have various names in the imprints. The whole volume is bound in simple brown calfskin, and the name of the early seventeenth-century lawyer and book collector Edward Gwynn is tooled in gold on the front cover. The volume is now in the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the story of its journey there shows the power of the “revolutionary hypothesis” that Greg told about it.

Edward Gwynn’s set of Pavier Quartos
Edward Gwynn’s set of Pavier Quartos. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 26101 copy 3.

In July 1919, the great Philadelphia book dealer A. S. W. Rosenbach burst into the offices of the Standard Oil Company of New York with a message for its president, Henry Clay Folger. Rosenbach had finally succeeded in acquiring the Gwynn volume from the Rhode Island collector Marsden Perry. Folger immediately bought the book for the staggering price of fifty thousand dollars, more than he ever paid for a book, with the exception of two of his copies of the First Folio. Only eight years earlier, Henry Huntington had paid this same amount for a Gutenberg Bible, said at the time to have set the sales record for a single volume. The price of the Gwynn volume is even more surprising when we realize not only that these are all later editions, not firsts, but also that numerous copies of each of the quartos bound in the volume still survive, far more than is typical for Shakespeare editions. To understand why Folger wanted the book so badly and was willing to pay so much for it, we need to trace its provenance.

The most obvious sign of previous ownership is Edward Gwynn’s stamp on the cover. The Gwynn name, with the guarantee it brings that the binding is roughly contemporary with Shakespeare, is crucial to the story. But the twentieth-century provenance is just as important. Pollard recounts that the book was brought to him in his capacity as a member of the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum: “Some years ago a letter was received at the British Museum from a German gentleman stating that he was bringing over to England, with some other early books, a volume containing nine Shakespearian (or pseudo-Shakespearian) plays, which he had been advised in Germany were of considerable value. He offered the British Museum the refusal of any that it might want, and stated that he proposed to bring the volume to the Museum immediately on his arrival at Charing Cross, probably about 6 p.m.” This “German gentleman” must have been a member of the aristocratic Goertz-Wrisberg family, or one of their agents, since a bookplate on the front pastedown belongs to their library; the effects of the book’s sojourn in Germany can also be seen on the spine, where a macaronic label was added that reads: “Plays und pamphlets of W Shak-speare.”

Pollard’s institution declined to purchase the volume because “all these plays were already in the British Museum,” although Pollard himself was already impressed by the book, which “was in such admirable condition and generally such an attractive purchase that some pains were taken, but unavailingly, to find it an English home.” The relative lack of interest is telling: at this moment the book must have appeared fairly familiar to collectors, resembling numerous other assemblages of Shakespeare quartos still to be found at reasonable prices, and the plays it contained were among the most common on the market. Purchased by the Quaritch bookselling firm in August 1902, the book was sold two months later to Perry. Pollard seems to have given little further thought to the “charming fat little volume” until 1906, when he saw a book that reminded him of Gwynn’s. While “arranging a Shakespeare exhibition in the King’s Library” at the British Museum, Pollard had “a chance conversation with a visitor,” which led him to another volume of the same plays, although in a different order, in a mid-eighteenth- century binding.

In fact, this encounter was hardly chance: the owner of the book, Edward Hussey, had noted the recent rise in sales prices for Shakespeare quartos and decided the time was right to sell the volume that had been in his family’s library since at least the mid-1700s. Hussey’s copy may originally have been owned by the minister and bureaucrat William Neile (1560–1624), who signed the title page of Whole Contention, the first play in the book. Perhaps it was Neile who, upon acquiring the volume, also added “1622” in manuscript after the dateless imprint of Whole Contention; the numerals appear to be in an early hand, and the ink appears similar to that used in Neile’s signature, although since both were later bleached, it is hard to be sure. Hussey consulted with the Society of Antiquaries about the book, and on the advice of someone there, “took the book to the British Museum and hunted up Mr Pollard.”

Hussey recounts that Pollard was “much impressed by it,” declaring it “a very creamy little volume” and estimating that “the price of it would suffice to buy a house with.” Following this consultation, Hussey decided to auction the volume at Sotheby’s, where each play was pulled out of the binding for individual sale. “A few days afterwards,” he continues, he “received a letter from Mr Pollard requesting me if possible to delay breaking up the volume, as he had an interesting and ingenious theory connected with it.” Unfortunately, it was too late: the plays had already been prepared for auction. The market for rare books had destroyed this interesting volume, since they were worth more individually than together. Only the binding survives, still at the Hussey estate at Scotney Castle and now containing Hussey’s own manuscript account of the story. The whereabouts of four of the nine playbooks once included cannot now be traced. As Pollard wrote, while it may be “to the advantage of every seller to break up the old volume,” the “contents, once dispersed, may easily lose all power of telling their collective history.”


Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press. Excerpted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.


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