It’s possible that a copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio now on display in the Free Library was marked up by John Milton, author of Paradise Lost. It’s being called the biggest literary discovery of our age — but it’s also a huge win for social media, a display of its power to disseminate and test new discoveries, a reason to celebrate living here and now.
This copy of the First Folio, the first collected edition (1623) of Shakespeare’s plays, has been at the Free Library since 1944. It and its scribbles have been known for years. Someone smart was reading, jotting down notes, making changes, even supplying missing lines (like a whole stanza of a song in Measure for Measure). At elbow, he or she had not only the Folio — but also editions of individual plays (for example, Romeo and Juliet) to compare versions.
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- A rare Shakespeare First Folio annotated by John Milton hid in Free Library of Philadelphia for 75 years
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Enter Claire Bourne, a Penn Ph.D. and now an assistant professor at Penn State. She published an essay about the annotations. Here, she argued, was a person with unusual understanding of poetry, Shakespeare, and editorial practice.
Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren read her article and agreed. He also thought he recognized the handwriting. After some agonizing, he wrote a thorough and careful blog post suggesting that Milton was the annotator.
Now the fun part: An immediate wave of email and Twitter feedback, hundreds of folks who study Milton, Shakespeare, and paleography (the science of reading old handwriting), including, in Scott-Warren’s words, “quite eminent, card-carrying Milton scholars. It was big, it was generally a yes, it was lightning-quick. Some even posted side-by-side photos comparing the Folio handwriting with penmanship known to be Milton’s. The way he makes his by and especially his he …
Such response used to take months or years. My friend and former Rutgers colleague Paul Bertram published a 1965 book arguing that the play Two Noble Kinsmen was by Shakespeare. It’s now a largely accepted part of the playwright’s works — but acceptance took years.
Today, boom. That’s social media at their best: Crowdsourcing knowledge, pooling evidence, linking minds across the world, verifying.
In a Sept. 17 interview with the BBC’s Kirsty Lang, Scott-Warren says that increasingly, “Twitter has created this quite amazing community of scholars who are … sharing things they find in libraries live. … Most libraries have opened up to digital cameras, and they’re OK with you posting things online … there’s a really vibrant community of people who are posting all kinds of little finds.”
And big ones. Collaboration continues. Bourne and Scott-Warren plan a series of articles digging deeper into the Shakespeare-Milton dialogue. Lots of others will join in.
Am I persuaded?
You bet I’m going to see the Folio, on display at the Free Library Central Branch until Oct. 19. I’m wary, with Scott-Warren, of the usual “wishful thinking” in these cases, the “copious spinning of the evidence to make it seem plausible,” leaving out contrary indicators.
But this is a pretty strong case. One hundred percent, you won’t get. So, yes, I am persuaded, and, granted, I’d sure like it to be true. Milton marking up his personal Shakespeare! For many reasons, it makes the “no Shakespeare” craziness seem even more tiresome and wrongheaded. There was a man, he wrote the plays, and Milton valued them enough to slave over the text. It makes both writers seem more alive across 370 years. The annotations are being dated at about 1630-1660, so … For me and for many, thanks largely to social media, such moments are paradise found.