The old book looms from under the glass here at the British Library.
A boy, about 12, looks at me as I study it. He glances at the book, shifts his gaze at me and then walks away. A moment later, he wanders back, looks at me and the book again and strides away again, mystified.
“It’s just a book,” he says to himself.
Yes, it’s just a book — the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s work.
First published nearly 500 years ago — in 1623 — it preserved the Bard’s writing in reasonably complete and accurate form. If it hadn’t been published, Shakespeare probably wouldn’t have been forgotten, but he likely wouldn’t be considered one of the greatest writers — and perhaps the greatest — in human history. That makes it one of the most important books ever published.
The boy’s mystification with the fascination the First Folio evokes is understandable.
In some ways, William Shakespeare did a magic trick. He disappeared within the long shadow he cast upon our culture, our history, our times.
We know little about the man himself. We don’t know the day he was born. We know next to nothing about his marriage. We can’t even be sure the portraits of him in fact are of him.
For a man who left such a huge footprint, few fingerprints remain.
This absence of biographical detail has allowed people to weave what amounts to fantasies about him. Sometimes, these are for purposes of entertainment — the movie “Shakespeare in Love” comes to mind — but sometimes the mythmaking has a different agenda in mind.
Over the years, a cottage industry of supposed scholarship saying Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written Shakespeare’s work has grown. The presumption is that no one without an elite education could have crafted pieces of such complexity and beauty.
Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce — none of whom possessed a college degree — might beg to differ.
While the details of Shakespeare’s life have vanished into the mists, his work has not. His accomplishment is a rare one, a triumph of creating works that were at the same time timely and timeless.
The temptation always is to think of the past as somehow more settled and less troubled than our own. But Shakespeare wrote in years of tumult and trauma, days of upheaval at least as tortured as now.
His career spanned the reigns of two monarchs. Elizabeth I came to the throne after being imprisoned and threatened with execution by her own half-sister. Later, when Elizabeth had assumed the throne, she imprisoned and then executed a rival for the crown, her own cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.
Because Elizabeth never married and had no children — a condition that created much consternation during the 45 years of her reign — the crown passed upon her death to the son of the woman she’d executed, James VI of Scotland and James I of England.
Both Elizabeth and James presided over a nation riven by religious differences, economic insecurity, external threats and questions of legitimacy and identity. Elizabeth took extraordinary precautions against assassination. James went even farther — wearing heavy cloaks and coats year-round to deter knife-wielding assailants. He also rarely if ever bathed, which means being in the royal presence must have been an aromatic ordeal.
Shakespeare could not write directly about all this. To do so at that time would have been to risk imprisonment, even death.
So, he took an indirect path, using trials from the past to speak truths about his present — and about eternity.
And he did it in an earthy way.
We’ve so sanctified his memory that we too often overlook his easy ribaldry. The man had a spectacular gift for double entendre.
While he was amusing 16th and early 17th-century audiences with raucous word play, Shakespeare also was reminding all of us that few of the troubles and terrors we experience, in any age, are new ones. Whatever the turmoil, we have seen it before, and we will see it again.
At some level, the boy who shook his head at me and walked away is right.
The First Folio is just a book.
But, it’s also a comfort, a reminder in this hard world of what we have endured in days past.
And can endure again.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.