Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"The Shakespeare Thefts" by Eric Rasmussen

My husband, on errand to the library, was left the unenviable task of picking up "something I'd like" for me to read. He came home with several books, among them The Shakespeare Thefts, a short account of the author and his team's work documenting all known copies of the first folios of Shakespeare's plays. I was pretty proud of him, especially because I'm just now beginning Romeo and Juliet with my 9th grade students, and I'm always looking for fun tidbits to throw into lessons. Unfortunately the book is a dud, but I won't say that to my husband. :)

Studying Shakespeare is a bit of a challenge. We have a wealth of drama and intrigue in his plays, but we know so little about the man himself that's it's not surprising that so many fantastic stories and myths have grown up around him. Nevertheless, there's always a certain excitement about entering the world of Shakespeare, and the reader expects to encounter such adventure in the tales of the copies of the first folios, which were put together after Shakespeare's death and are the first place many of his most famous plays appear. Rasmussen himself builds on this expectation with a title like The Shakespeare Thefts, which suggests mystery and plots.

However, the stories just aren't particularly interesting. A number of folios have been stolen over the years (some were recovered, some not), but even the more interesting thefts are recounted blandly and without much excitement. Despite the title, many of the stories are not about thefts but about random things related to the folios: a Japanese owner who won't let Rasmussen see his copy (Rasmussen is really upset about this; he mentions it several times) or the owner who donated his copy to a university because it smelled. Rasmussen spends the rest of the time congratulating himself and his team's work and promoting his other book, The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue, which was made from his research.

Even though the book is a very short and quick read, and even though I finished it not even an hour ago, I already can barely remember any details of individual folios. It's a shame, because you'd hope that the lives of these rare and treasured documents could live up to the stories contained within them.

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