My brush with Shakespeare

This, for the record, is not an April Fool’s prank.

Some years ago, during my first trip to London, I called in at Dr. Williams’s Library (no site), an insitution under de facto Unitarian control, and had a pleasant chat about church history with an Official with a Certain Unitarian Related Trust housed there.
At the end, he asked if I would like to see some of the goodies (my term) in the strong room (his term), in the sub-(sub-?)-(sub?)-basement. We took the coffin-sized elevator to that deep level, and met the sexton. He seemed to live down there and was then making a pot of tea. (But I mention the tea to suggest the sink; we washed our hands before going further.) I felt I had wandered into a film set, and I forget who carried the keys but remember feeling like walking with a jailer.
To my delight, I got to hold Oliver Cromwell’s death mask, and the reputed liner to the baptismal font in which Elizabeth I was baptized. We saw all sorts of things sublime and pedestrian. (The 20s era treasurer’s books from the Salisbury Unitarian Church made as much an impression as the medieval brevaries.)

But there was one thing he waited to show me, and I still tingle to think of it. Stored in a lead biscuit-box type container was the prize. He didn’t say what it was — save a reference its great value and that “there should be two or three of these in America” — but my host’s tone made me tremble a bit. I used my best historian’s grasp to protect the book and opened to the title page.

When I saw WIlliam Shakespeare’s face stare back all the blood drained out of my face: I was holding a copy of the First Folio.

So what do you do when you hold a cornerstone of the English language? Open it to the middle, read two lines — Viola’s, but I don’t recall which — from Twelth Night, and give it back.

A thrilling episode, and I mention it now because the library is now putting this rare volume on the block. I hope they raise a ton (tonne?) of money to keep their mission going.

Rare Shakespeare folio to be sold

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