Going Viral: A Shakespearean discovery in a small French village spirals out of control

Sightings of my bin-liner began on the first day of spring break. My cell phone buzzed with unusual frequency as incoming texts arrived from friends and colleagues, all sent from the security check-point in the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, and all accompanied by iPhone photos of the plastic bins that go through the x-ray scanners – each of which was unaccountably lined with a picture of me “Identifying a New Shakespeare First Folio,” which my university was advertising as evidence that “World Improving Research Happens Here.” My students took special delight in sending photos with their shoes on my face. I suppose this is what happens when one goes viral.

It all began with an e-mail I received from a librarian in a small town in the north of France, who thought he might have discovered an original 1623 Shakespeare First Folio in the Saint-Omer public library. I’d recently cataloged all of the known copies of the First Folio worldwide, so he was writing to ask for my assistance in authenticating his discovery. As it happened, I was going to be in London the following week, so offered to take the Eurostar over to Saint-Omer for a look at the copy in question. The librarian’s suspicions proved to be correct. The unique watermarks in the paper confirmed that the Saint-Omer First Folio is indeed an original, one of only 235 known to exist.

The next day, the story broke in The Guardian, “Shakespeare First Folio found in French Library,” and was quickly picked up by other media outlets: “Zounds! French Librarians Hath Discovered a New Shakespeare Folio” (Slate.com). When Jennifer Schuessler of The New York Times asked if I could provide an additional hook for her story in the paper of record, I told her that the town’s public library had inherited the collection of the Jesuit College at Saint-Omer, which was founded in 1593, and that an inscription in the book might offer a clue to an early owner. As Schuessler wrote: “Rasmussen pointed out the name ‘Neville,’ inscribed on the folio’s first surviving page – a possible indication, he said, that the book was brought to St.-Omer in the 1650s by Edward Scarisbrick, a member of a prominent English Catholic family who went by that alias and attended the Jesuit college, founded when Catholics were banned from England’s universities. The new folio, he added ‘could be part of the puzzle of Shakespeare’s place in Catholic culture.’”

And then, all hell broke loose. The story became “The discovery of this Shakespeare First Folio fuels one of the great Shakespearean controversies” (The Washington Post) and morphed into “Discovery of ‘lost’ Shakespeare First Folio revives claim playwright was secret Catholic” (The Independent). The Cardinal Newman Society reported that “New Discovery at Catholic College May Help Build Case for Shakespeare’s Catholicism.” And The Atlantic, in a grammatically challenged headline, offered “A Brief History of Catholic Claims to Shakespeare: The discovery of a new folio of The Bard’s works add to the claim that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic.”

On NPR’s “Morning Edition” the next day, I attempted to stem the tide, reasserting my less sweeping claim, which had to do with the book’s provenance, not Shakespeare’s religion:

ERIC 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.

Alas, the NPR interviewer would have none of it:

PETRA 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.

Thereby setting up Jim Shapiro to get the last word and the last laugh:

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

My university’s media office reports that the story of the Saint-Omer First Folio has so intrigued the world that it has received 12.5 billion page views to date, from 323 million unique users. Surely, a place in the lining of TSA bins is a fitting reward for going viral with a story that one did not intend and does not believe.