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Shakespeare Folio Found In Small-Town French Library

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Shakespeare's first folio is one of the rarest books in the world. Just 233 are believed to exist. And since none of Shakespeare's original manuscripts survived, the first folio is credited with preserving many of his plays. Now as NPR's Petra Mayer reports, another copy has been rediscovered.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: For centuries, the public library of Saint-Omer in northern France has had a beat-up, old volume of Shakespeare's plays. The cover had been torn off, pages were missing here and there, and everyone assumed it was an 18th-century reprint. But then they pulled it off the shelves in preparation for an exhibition on British literature.

ERIC RASMUSSEN: One of the librarians was savvy enough to take a look at this and say, hey, this might be an original Shakespeare folio.

MAYER: That's Eric Rasmussen, a professor at the University of Nevada, who was called in to authenticate the book.

RASMUSSEN: Sure enough, it has all of the unique first folio watermarks, and it's a first folio.

MAYER: Those watermarks Rasmussen is referring to appear on the handmade paper used in the original folios. The books in Saint-Omer originally belonged to a Jesuit college - an institution that welcomed Catholics fleeing from newly Protestant England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Rasmussen says that's probably how this folio got to France.

RASMUSSEN: This particular copy has the name Neville written on the first page. And Neville was the alias that was taken by the Scarisbrick family, a family of Catholic nobles. And we know Edward Scarisbrick, who took the name of Neville, went to Saint-Omer College.

MAYER: Scholars have been debating for years about whether William Shakespeare may have been a secret Catholic. But Columbia University Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro says that although this folio came from a Catholic college, that doesn't shed any light on the Bard's personal religious feelings.

JAMES SHAPIRO: If it had been found in a yeshiva in Vilna, I wouldn't suggest that Shakespeare was Jewish.

MAYER: Every copy of the folio is slightly different. Eric Rasmussen says this particular one is interesting because someone, maybe a young man at Saint-Omer College, has scribbled notes in the margins.

RASMUSSEN: They took the hostess, Mistress Quickly, in the Henry IV plays, and they made her into a man. Maybe some of the students in the English Jesuit College didn't want to play a woman.

MAYER: The folio, notes and all, will go on display next summer as part of Saint-Omer's planned exhibition. Petra Mayer, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.