‘Happely some plaies may be worthy the keeping’, Thomas Bodley told his Librarian, Thomas James in 1612, ‘but hardly one in fortie.’ Foreign plays, he said, were written for the sake of widsom and learning; unfortunately, this was not the case with English plays. The meagre and dubious benefits they would bring were not worth the trouble, Bodley thought, and he did not want the Library stuffed with such ‘baggage bookes’. Their inclusion would only bring it harm and scandal.

In his strictures against plays Bodley did not distinguish between playwrights, or exempt the work of a recently retired man of the theatre, William Shakespeare, who by the eighteenth century was considered uniquely gifted. In his memoir Edward Gibbon described the ‘idolatry for the Gigantic Genius of Shakespeare which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman’. In Bodley’s lifetime, that genius was above all to be found in the living, evanescent world of the Elizabethan theatre, but it could also be found in print.

Shakespeare never collected his plays together and had them published in the deliberate manner of his friend Ben Jonson; it no longer assumed, however, that he was indifferent to the printing of his dramatic work, which would have been available in the small quarto and octavo ‘playbooks’. Sometimes unauthorized and often badly edited and roughly printed, these were the kind of ‘baggage books’ Bodley excluded from his library. Happily, a few examples are now kept in the Bodleian, thanks to collectors such as Edward Malone and the purchases of much later Librarians, together with unique editions of Shakespeare’s most popular poem, Venus and Adonis.

A copy of the most celebrated edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the posthumously published ‘First Folio’, was acquired by the Bodleian soon after its publication in 1623. By 1674, however, it had left the Library, and it has been conjectured that it was disposed of as superfluous when the Bodleian acquired a Third Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1664. When this very copy of the First Folio reappeared under new ownership at the end of the twentieth century the Librarian launched a successful appeal to reacquire it for a vast sum.

Thomas Bodley can hardly be censured for his attitude towards plays, including those of England’s gigantic genius, for it is unsafe to assume that today’s Library would be any better today at recognizing the precious marks of genius of the future.