The debate over whether England's greatest writer William Shakespeare was secretly a Catholic has raged ever since his death, when it was claimed by some that “he died a papist”.
But scholarly speculation over his religious sympathies has been revived by the discovery of a “lost” copy of the first edition of his plays in Saint-Omer in Northern France.
The unearthing of an unknown First Folio, one of the rarest and most precious books in the world, is a significant literary event in itself.
The other 232 surviving copies of the first edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623 seven years after his death, have small textual differences. The well-preserved 233rd example which has surfaced in the public library of the small town near Calais could throw new light on Shakespeare’s writing.
It also adds a new piece to a muddled jigsaw of evidence that suggests that Shakespeare may have had links with the clandestine Catholic worshippers who were brutally suppressed in England in the late 16th and early 17th century.
The First Folio identified in Saint-Omer belonged until the French Revolution to a Jesuit college in the town. In Shakespeare’s time and the decades afterwards, the college sheltered Catholic exiles and trained would-be priests from England.
After it was driven out by the revolutionaries in the 1790s, the college moved to Belgium and finally to Stoneyhurst in Lancashire, where it thrives to this day.
Eric Rasmussen, the expert who authenticated the Saint-Omer First Folio, believes that the book may have crossed the Channel with Edward Scarisbrick, a prominent English Catholic who studied at Saint-Omer in the 1630s.
The first page is inscribed with the word “Nevill”. Scarisbrick is known to have used the name “Nevill” or “Neville”.
Mr Rasmussen, the author of The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue, says that the discovery adds to the disjointed evidence that Shakespeare had links with the Catholic resistance in Elizabethan and Jacobean England .
“People have been making vague arguments, but now for the first time we have a connection between the Jesuit college network and Shakespeare,” he told The New York Times. “The links become a little more substantial when you have this paper trail.”
Transcripts of Shakespeare plays are held by another Jesuit college at Douai in Northern France which sheltered English Catholics in the 17th century. Jean-Christophe Mayer, one of France’s foremost Shakespearean scholars, says that the discovery of the Saint-Omer First Folio proves that the playwright was cherished by English Catholic exiles. “It adds to the puzzle of Shakespeare’s place in Catholic culture,” he said.
Martin Wiggins, a senior fellow at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, dismisses the speculation about Shakespeare’s supposed Catholic sympathies as “irrelevant”. “He was admired and studied by English Catholics. We already knew that. Now we have more evidence. That doesn’t mean that Shakespeare was himself a Catholic sympathiser,” Dr Wiggins told The Independent.
The discovery of the Saint-Omer First Folio was a personal vindication for Dr Wiggins. In 2005, he wrote an essay, after studying the text of a play performed at the Saint-Omer college in the 17th century. He said that it contained so many verbatim passages from Shakespeare that the college must have owned one of the 800 copies of the First Folio.
The find also proves an old saying – the best place to hide a book is in a library. When the Jesuit college in Saint-Omer was dissolved in the French Revolution, its rich collection of old books, including a Gutenberg Bible from the 15th century, was handed to the town’s public library.
The books were scrupulously preserved but badly catalogued. The First Folio was listed as an 18th-century edition. A new custodian of the town’s old books, Rémy Cordonnier, was sorting through the collection a few weeks ago to prepare an exhibition on English literature next summer. “When I held the Shakespeare in my hands, I knew that it must be much older,” he told The Independent on Sunday. “I checked with images of other copies of the First Folio online and saw, to my excitement, that many of the original mistakes in the page numbering were the same.”
Mr Rasmussen, an American, needed only a few minutes with the book in Saint-Omer last weekend to know that it was an authentic First Folio.
The exhibition of old English books in Saint-Omer next summer now assumes a much greater importance. Saint-Omer hopes that the discovery will attract more British visitors to the town, which is only a few minutes from Calais.
In the meantime, Dr Wiggins suggests that the Saint-Omer First Folio may be a theatrical first. It has scribbled stage directions and changes in some plays, especially Henry IV, Part 1. He said: “They must have been intended for a performance by the boys at the college – which would make it the earliest known example of a school production of Shakespeare.”