Man-eating Money Maniacs

Sprint for Shakespeare has taken a life of its own, if a quick Google search is anything to go by. We’re delighted that it has caught so many people’s imaginations.

The generosity of the public enabled the Bodleian to buy back its original copy of the book in 1906. The Library Records (shelfmarks c. 1259, c. 1260, c. 1261, and c.1262) contain many touching letters from donors, large and small, some of which we have already quoted from. We’ll publish more of these letters throughout the campaign.

But pleas for philanthropy, or (to use today’s terminology) crowd-funding, were not met with universal sympathy. The headmaster of a Surrey school liked neither the approach nor the subject matter: “why all this fuss about Shakespeare?” Our champions — actors, directors, teachers, and academics — argue more eloquently against accusations of “literary provincialism” than I could.

Read the letter and make your own mind up about the debate!

SURREY   7 2 [19]06

Dear Mr Librarian,

I have to thank you for the circular which I received from you this morning about the repurchase for the Bodleian of the fist folio Shakespeare. My finances do not permit of my offering any contribution, but it may amuse your eminence to read why I should not offer anything if I could.

Supposing the book to be worth three thousand pounds, or three millions, the present possessor ought to present it to the Bodleian, if it is a question of the honour of the Library. And he ought to do that even if he was very hard up himself. That is the way my sentiment looks at the matter.

Secondly, having due regard to the cost of existing in this present wicked world, it is quite absurd that any copy of any book should command such a price. Only the man-eating money-maniacs of America could have started such an inept fashion. Look at the cou[n]terfeit presentments of their physiognomies in this week’s “Sketch” – if you ever come in contact with so vulgar a production) – and say whether such soulless animals deserve to be dignified with the title of Man. By all means let them have EVERYTHING that can be bought for money – the Pope’s tiara and the King’s crown and a majority in the House of Commons – and a free passage across the Styx. And let them have the Shakespeare, if the present possessor’s sentiment and conscience allows him to let them have it. The only cure for covetousness is satiety – and the Styx.

Thirdly, I have myself the same passionate love for good books that you yourself have – you, the embodied Bodleian. But if I want a Shakespeare, the University Press gives me a far better copy than Mr Turbutt’s for the sum of six shillings. And when I do not want it any longer, I can safely give that copy to any intelligent boy who wants to know something about English; and when I want Shakespeare again, the University Press will provide me with a second one (it is really now the seventh) at the same modest figure. Books of historic interest should of course be in your charge; but they should be always presented – the donor does himself an honour by giving to the Bodleian, and he ought to feel insulted by the mere suggestion for of his taking money for his gift, as though he were dealing in cattle or dirty South African shares. If I were starving and possessed the Medicean Vergil, I would give it into your charge and scorn to say anything about the starvation. I will send you by return of post the most valuable book I possess, if you want it, and have not got it; it is a Vulgate printed by Froben of Basle, November 1st, 1495.

Fourthly, why all this fuss about Shakespeare? If you were offered genuine manuscripts of the lost plays of Sophocles, I can imagine that heaven and earth ought to be moved to put them where they could be seen by competent persons and properly edited. The University Press would then provide us, who love Sophocles and decent literature, with copies, much better for practical purposes than the originals, at a reasonable sum. But why all this fuss about Shakespeare? Isn’t it an artificially induced furore? Does it not remind you of the intense enthusiasm for printing millions of copies of the English Bible – an enthusiasm which is the special characteristic of a class of people who are as ignorant as sin of the real meaning and history of that collection of books? Why should the great, the dignified, Bodleian Library lend itself to the encouragement of such literary provincialism?

With genuine respect, and half-genuine sorrow (to fool with words after the Elizabethan style) I subscribe myself

Yours sincerely

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