Original Collection of Shakespeare Sells for $10 Million at Auction

folio of 36 plays fetches record price at christie's

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A 1623 copy of William Shakespeare’s printed works sold for nearly $10 million, NPR reported. The folio is a historical and literary treasure and was sold via phone bid to a rare book collector. Shakespeare flourished in London’s early theater scene.

William Shakespeare statue
Shakespeare wrote 37 plays between 1590 and 1612; his company performed in several playhouses outside of London in the 16th century. Photo By Claudio Divizia / Shutterstock

According to NPR, an impressive rarity of literature fetched an incredible sum at a Christie’s auction recently. “A complete and original copy of Shakespeare’s very first printed collection of plays set a record Wednesday when it was auctioned off at just under $10 million,” the article said. “This was the first time in almost two decades a copy had hit the market.

“At the time of its original printing, the folio was not only Shakespeare’s first collected edition of plays, but it was also the first time that 18 of the 36 plays in it had ever been printed.”

Shakespeare found success in 16th-century London’s burgeoning theatre scene. He was born three years before the city’s first real theater—the Red Lion—was built.

The Fun Part of Town

Shakespeare’s writing was often informed by the tools of the stage that he had available to him. That included the location and setup of his local playhouses.

“They were built outside of the original Roman walls that surrounded the city proper of London,” said Dr. Marc C. Conner, the Jo M. and James M. Ballengee Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. “This is because the city was controlled by Puritan leaders, and the Puritans despised and distrusted theater. They insisted that we must be what God has commanded us to be—our vocations, our calling—but theater teaches us to transform into or pretend to be that which we are not.”

For example, Dr. Conner said, on stage, commoners pretend to be lords and ladies. It was illegal for women to act, so young boys played female roles, which Puritans found abhorrent. So drama was criminalized and theaters were built across the Thames, on its south side, where rules were looser.

“Here, too, were the gambling dens, the seedy taverns, the brothels,” Dr. Conner said. “Shakespeare was more at home with the tavern keepers and the prostitutes than with the upper class and nobility. He could, at the very least, traverse both the high and the low of society.”

This was key in Shakespeare’s understanding of all types of characters.

Within Spitting Distance

Dr. Conner said that theaters like The Globe attracted as eclectic an audience as can be imagined, seating as many as 3,000 people.

“It would attract the whole range of the population, meaning many classes would mingle here, from wealthy landowning gentry to the emerging middle class, all the way down to the poor, who could enter the theater for a mere penny and stand on the ground in front of the stage and cheer, boo, and catcall their way through an entire play,” he said. “Small wonder the authorities would be nervous about these playhouses—anything was liable to happen in there.”

Finally, Dr. Conner said that the stages of these theaters were called “thrust stages,” meaning they were pushed out into the middle of the theater with the audience surrounding them. This made the experience more “in your face” than modern popular theater, since the actors could see and even interact with their patrons.

Shakespeare’s legacy endures today, some 400 years after his death.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Marc C. Conner contributed to this article. Dr. Conner is the Jo M. and James M. Ballengee Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Professor Conner earned his bachelor’s degrees in English and philosophy at the University of Washington and his master’s and doctoral degrees in English literature at Princeton University.