New Shakespeare Find Has Gender Switch
1623 first folio was forgotten in library for centuries
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 26, 2014 3:11 AM CST
A Sotheby's worker holds a 1623 first edition folio of Shakespeare's plays.   (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

(Newser) – An incredibly rare copy of one of Shakespeare's first folios has been rediscovered after sitting forgotten in a French library for centuries—and experts say the find could reveal a lot more about the plays and the playwright. Only around 800 of the first edition of Shakespeare's plays were published in 1623, and the latest find brings the number known to still be around to 223; previously unknown copies surface at the rate of about one a decade. An American Shakespeare expert who helped identify the folio says this copy's history—it was brought to France by an English Catholic in 1650—will add to speculation that the bard was a secret Catholic, reports the New York Times.

Every copy of the folio has differences, the expert says, and this one is especially fascinating because handwritten notes give clues as to how the plays were performed at the time, including a never-before-seen gender switch of a "wench" to a "fellow" in a scene in Henry VI, one of 36 plays in the folio. The medieval literature expert who found the folio at the Saint-Omer library in northern France tells the Guardian it had been wrongly classified as dating from the 18th century and he didn't "instantly recognize it as a book of value. It had been heavily used and was damaged. It had seen better days." (Another first folio was trashed by an unemployed book dealer trying to disguise it enough to sell it and fund his obsession with a Cuban waitress.)