Collins tells a fascinating story of the initial collection of plays after Shakespeare died in 1616, the modifications in later folios, the disastrously bad edition by Alexander Pope in 1725 and the Folio’s steadily increasing value as a historical document and financial asset. He trekked around the world to visit as many of the surviving First Folios as he could, and wrote engagingly of the people and places he saw. If one is a serious bibliophile, this must be well-trodden ground, but it was all new to me, and very well done.
Having read Collins’ book, I really wanted to see a First Folio for myself. The Folger Library in Washington, D.C., has a lot of them, but it turns out that there’s no need to make a trip: Firestone has a copy in its Rare Books collection, and thanks to a current exhibit in the Milberg Gallery, you can just walk in and there it is.
Why is it on display? For the past several months, Firestone has featured an intriguing exhibit called “The Author’s Portrait: O, could he but have drawne his Wit.” There are over a hundred significant rare books and other artifacts that include portraits of their authors; the collection includes works by, and often more or less contemporaneous pictures of, people like John Milton, Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Bernard Shaw.
The First Folio is there because of its frontispiece, the famous engraving of Shakespeare. You’d recognize it for sure. I did because it’s the one in the Complete Works that I bought for a couple of dollars at a used book sale years ago, long before I knew anything about the portrait or indeed any of the history of how Shakespeare’s plays were collected.
It was also sometime last fall, perhaps with The Book of William in mind, that I happened to notice something unusual in the window of the toy store on Palmer Square, just down the street from Teresa’s. Just what every kid wants — a Shakespeare Action Figure with Removable Quill Pen and Book! Unfortunately, this improbable “action” figure appeared to be pretty badly done. It was only five or six inches tall, made of hard vinyl and rather crude in execution. The tiny removable book and quill pen would be lost immediately by even the most careful child. I looked at it several times over the next couple of months but could never bring myself to spend money for something so poorly made, though it might have made a tongue-in-cheek present for a friend in the English department. Eventually it disappeared, whether sold or shipped back one can only speculate, and the opportunity seemed to be gone.
But thanks to the miracle of Google, I was able to find the company that sells it. Indeed, its online catalog has an army of action figures, from Alexander the Great to Annie Oakley, from Jane Austen to Oscar Wilde, from Franklin to Einstein, from Jesus to Freud. Some of these famous people also have removable parts, and the Deluxe Jesus comes with five (vinyl) loaves, two small fishes and a jug for converting water to wine. (I am not making this up.)
Einstein and Beethoven apparently have no removable parts. The latter omission is a bit surprising, since Beethoven is often pictured as writing with a quill pen, and there’s not much difference between a tiny plastic book and a tiny plastic music manuscript. None of the figures are particularly accurate representations of their originals, at least as I remember images; for instance, neither Einstein nor Beethoven has nearly as much vinyl hair as they seemed to have had in life.
Here’s a question: Who would be our campus action figures, Princeton stars that combine great distinction with real distinctiveness? Cornel West GS ’80 comes immediately to mind; no one else here is so instantly recognizable. Paul Muldoon would surely qualify. Joyce Carol Oates would be a wonderful addition to the group. My fellow ‘Prince’ columnist, Tony Grafton, is a natural. Of course President Tilghman belongs, and if she were to carry the mace that signifies her office, that would be a really impressive removable part. So give it some thought. It’s likely that suggestions would be welcomed by the company, which must be looking for ways to keep their list fresh, and I’ll bet that there would be a decent local market for our very own Princeton action figures.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at email@example.com.