Eric Rasmussen is Folio Hunter, but he's better known as co-editor of the Royal Shakespeare edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare and a professor of English at University of Nevada. Even though he's a busy man traveling all over the world, I managed to steal him away from his busy schedule to discuss his new book, The Shakespeare Thefts.
So who is Eric Rasmussen?
I grew up outside of NY city and when I was three years old my parents bought a Pontiac Tempest. My mother named it Miranda. It was clear at that point I was fated to become a Shakespearean. I went to Grinnell College and was doing a summer abroad in the UK where I had the opportunity to work on Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. I got hooked. I did my PhD at the University of Chicago where I worked with David Bevington.
So your first collaboration was with David Bevington?
Yes. Amazingly, David, who has never collaborated with anyone in his professional life, decided to collaborate with me. I wanted to work on an edition and was really into textual stuff. He asked me to do Doctor Faustus which was enormously generous. I was a co-editor from the start and it was a wonderful, genuine collaboration for which I'm eternally grateful. After that we went on to do Oxford's Complete Works of Marlowe and the Norton Anthology of English Renaissance Drama.
Some authors prefer to collaborate and some prefer to work alone. Do you have a preference?
I've almost always collaborated on editions and I think that's a really smart thing to do. You have strengths and other people have strengths where you have deficiencies. I can't imagine doing an edition on my own so I've collaborated with a number of people, including Jonathan Bate on the RSC edition of The Complete Works (which won a Falstaff Award for Best Book when it was released in 2007).
So who approached whom in your latest collaboration with Anthony James West?
About 15 years ago, Anthony West, who'd already put together a preliminary survey of the First Folio, approached me to put together a team to do a really thorough descriptive catalog of all the Shakespeare Folios in the world. This was great because I already had a research team for the last decade or so in the field searching for folios. We were literally recording everything we could, bindings, every watermark, every detail.
That's quite a journey to embark on, especially since the private owners of First Folios are notoriously secretive, even somewhat eccentric.
Exactly, we started to find really interesting stories. Like there's a copy in Japan that has a musket bullet going halfway through it. Stories like this are really cool. And my publisher wanted me forever to do a "crossover" book like Will in the World or Shapiro's 1599 and I thought the folio search process could work for that. So this is the first time I've ventured into this completely new area of writing.
So Anthony James West has also published two editions of his First Folio Census, which are very interesting, but hard to find. Is this collaboration going to supersede those editions?
This is really the third volume. He spent 15 years and his entire personal fortune traveling the world to find and record these books. He found 70 copies that we didn't know existed. His rationale was that this was precursor work and he spent around 15 minutes with each volume. He expected that at some point, he would go back and do a more thorough job later on. So his first two volumes lead up to this ultimate catalog. And since the publisher of those first two volumes had undergone some management changes and were no longer interested in the books, I approached my publisher Palgrave.
Since that kind of book is really for a limited audience, was it a hard sell?
No, they were really enthusiastic about it. It's enormously rewarding to work with a publisher like that. It's a beautiful book with over 1000 pages in it and color plates. It's a consummation of Anthony's work and it records every detail about the First Folio copies, including a narrative history of each.
Really? In that level of detail?
Yes, we basically created a virtual fingerprint of each copy with the collection of details. We basically spent a week on each copy. So if a copy were ever stolen and someone attempted to pass it off, we would know.
So that's what brought you to your new book, The Shakespeare Thefts? I read the book and would never have guessed there's so much drama around the First Folio.
This is so strange. I really thought this book would die a quiet little death upon publication, but I'm so pleased an flattered that people are people are finding it an interesting read. When most of your writing is academic, you assume that what you're doing is something people might consult. But the idea of people going out and reading this on picnics blows by mind.
Well, I think you can attribute a large part of the fascination to the recent trial of Raymond Scott and his eccentric personality. It's quite a fantastical story that will surely be a movie at some point. What are some other odd stories you've come across?
I'm pretty obsessive about this copy in Japan. It's possibly a stolen copy. It seems odd that someone would put in their will that nobody could see the copy until 13 years after they die. It seems that the family would have liked nothing better than for me to come in and identify it, but we couldn't.
In The Shakespeare Thefts, you note some of the things you've seen in the margins of First Folios like math problems. Are there other things of note?
There are some early annotations in the Glasgow copy. Someone apparently knew the actors and had written next to the names notes about each. They would write short summaries of a few words at the end of each play. He was apparently a fan and had seen many of the plays performed, but just couldn't be won over. The one in Merry Wives is my favorite. He writes next to the cuckolded Ford's name, "A jealous man's dilemma." Lovely.
Very much so and so is the book as a whole. Thank you for sharing these stories and good luck folio hunting!