Happy 450th Birthday to William Shakespeare

by Liz on March 28, 2014 · Rare English Literature

William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing

The most valuable collection of Shakespeare’s works was accumulated by Henry Clay Folger, a millionaire Standard Oil executive, who died two weeks after he laid the cornerstone to the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1930. He appointed the Trustees of Amherst College to administer the library located in Washington, DC and the collection that includes 79 copies of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works, printed in 1623 by Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, known as the First Folio. This scarce volume of 36 Shakespearean plays had probably a total of 750 copies printed, 219 of which are most frequently known to exist today as incomplete remnants.  With its original price of twenty shillings per copy, the First Folio has undergone a remarkable price increase. In 2001, a copy was sold by Christie’s, New York to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen for $6,166,000; the highest price paid for a 17th century book. Another copy sold at auction in 2006 by Sotheby’s, London to an anonymous London book dealer for £2,800,000.

Henry Clay Folger also acquired 58 copies of the Second Folio of 1632, 24 of the Third Folio of 1663-64, and 36 of the Fourth Folio of 1685. Second folio editions that are first issues published by Todd are valued at around half a million dollars. It is estimated that the original edition of 1,000 copies was shared between the five publishers who were proprietors of rights to one or more of the plays. The library also owns the world’s largest collection of 18th and 19th century editions of Shakespeare. These 19th century editions are valued below $1000, while the corresponding 18th century collections are valued below $10,000.

First Folio - Much Ado About Nothing In celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday this year, we chose the riveting comedy play Much Ado About Nothing to sink a bit deeper into.

Throughout William Shakespeare’s riveting play “Much Ado About Nothing,” two relationships emerge: one between the sweet, even tempered Hero and the conceited Count Claudio, and the other between the hostile and witty Beatrice and the equally cynical Signor Benedick. Very stark differences are made clear in the dynamics of each relationship as the union between Hero and Claudio follows more traditional and accepted patterns, while nearly every aspect of the love between Beatrice and Benedick is unconventional and unpredictable. Shakespeare cleverly portrays these contrasting relationships and their courses to express his theme that when love follows traditional expectations and norms, great destruction and sorrow can ensue.

For instance, Beatrice reminds her baffled uncle and cousin that she is quite serious in her choice to remain single, and she simply will not be persuaded to live otherwise.

“‘Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth. Would it
not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant
dust, to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?
No, uncle, I’ll none. Adam’s sons are my brethren, and, truly, I
hold it a sin to match it in my kindred.”’ (Act II scene I, lines 46-50)

Beatrice is stating that she simply does not respect men enough to be put in a situation where she would be mindlessly controlled by them, and she has therefore decided that she will happily remain single. While this manner of thinking was shocking during the time that the play took place, Shakespeare enthusiastically applauds Beatrice’s attitude in the matter, and fervently hopes that women of his time will turn away from their restricted lives, and instead take the high road in Beatrice’s unchartered footprints towards freedom and success, and ultimately a happier outcome in love.

Moreover, throughout the play, the lively dialogue between Beatrice and Benedick is very uncommon, as ladies and gentlewomen during the play’s time simply did not engage in much conversation outside of what was deemed acceptable in terms of courtship. The fact that Beatrice and Benedick enjoy snubbing each other by turn as friends, is extremely rare, yet Shakespeare feels that it is a necessary ingredient in the recipe to what will be a happy life together.

On the other side of the equation, the mild mannered Hero chooses to respond to her relationship  in much the same way as her father; by proclaiming that they will be married without first getting to know each other or taking the time to see whether she cares for him in a romantic way. As a result, she has no objections to her lover Claudio’s rather shocking speech:

“‘Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy if I
could say how much. Lady, as you are mine, I am yours. I give
away myself for you, and dote upon the exchange.”’ (Act II scene i, lines 232-35 )

This finalizing speech makes evident the fact that Claudio has quickly laid ownership on the
unfortunate Hero, and already views her as another addition to his prized trophies and possessions. By obtaining Hero in this unfair and unjust manner, Claudio is viewing poor Hero as a beautiful object who will mechanically render service when the time is due. Shakespeare is outraged at this possessive and selfish behavior, and he seeks to make evident the fact that no man should ever treat his wife in the way that Claudio clearly plans to treat the unsuspecting and oblivious Hero who has not been given enough chance to see how cruel life truly is through the bars of her gilded cage.

 By painting a picture of a common and acceptable wedding going horribly wrong, Shakespeare neatly frames his theme that obeying what is expected and predestined in terms of love can certainly and easily cause disaster and ruin, as is seen in Hero and Claudio’s case.

Shakespeare;s feeling concerning Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship is vastly more favorable than his feelings of Hero and Claudio’s, as he feels that Hero and Claudio’s staid, reticent, unromantic and wholly acceptable and approved escapade will only lead to further unhappiness and turmoil between the two who are truly strangers to each other.

Though both relationships in the play do result in marriage, it is obvious to observe that Beatrice and Benedick’s journey towards love is far less traumatic and convoluted than Hero and Claudio’s is. Though both couples appear to be happy by the end of the play, it is worth wondering how long Hero and Claudio’s happiness will truly last once they find themselves thrown into a life of marriage with someone whom they not only do not know, and also with someone who views the opposite partner in an unfair and unequal status. Unlike the close knit and well informed Beatrice and Benedick who have taken the affairs of love into their own hands, Hero and Claudio will mostly be subject to a life of misery and grief due to their obedience to the strict regulations and expectations of society’s rather unreasonable traditions. 



About the author

Partner, rare book dealer. Sekkes Consultants.

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