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ASU professor gets look at rare 1619 book

'A Yorkshire Tragedy' was hidden in plain sight inside Phoenix library

Man turning the pages of an old book.
August 29, 2023

The book is gently placed on a gray pillow, a weighted string called a “book-snake” holding it in place.

Jonathan Hope, a professor in Arizona State University’s Department of English and one of the world’s top Shakespeare linguistic experts, takes out a small flashlight and begins to examine the book.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in the Rare Book Room of the Burton Barr Central Library in downtown Phoenix, and Hope is looking at “A Yorkshire TragedyPrinted as A Yorkshire Tragedie,” one of several plays erroneously attributed to Shakespeare that was printed and bound as part of the 1619 False Folio collection — predating Shakespeare’s First Folio.

(This year is the 400th anniversary of the First Folio, which the English department will be celebrating with a variety of events throughout the fall semester.)

If this copy of "A Yorkshire Tragedy" is genuine, it’s one of fewer than 50 in the world and worth, Hope estimates, at least $40,000.

Close up of a 1619 printing of A Shakespeare Tragedie

Detail of a rare 1619 copy of "A Yorkshire Tragedy," erroneously attributed to William Shakespeare. ASU Shakespeare expert Jonathan Hope examined the book on Aug. 22 in the Rare Book Room at the the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

How it got into the library — and how Hope came to inspect it — is a story that begins in 1958 and involves a book collector and his last will and testament.

It’s hidden-in-plain-sight treasure, and Hope smiles as he’s asked about the find.

“For most people it’s probably an old book with some fake pages, but for me it’s very exciting,” he says.

The book was donated to the library in 1958 by early Phoenix civic leader Alfred Knight, who gifted approximately 2,500 books upon his death to ensure their access and preservation. But it wasn’t “discovered” until July 27 of this year.

That’s when Hope was looking through the Rare Book Room catalog at Burton Barr to see what 16th and 17th century holdings they had in addition to Shakespeare’s Second Folio, published in 1632.

When he saw “A Yorkshire Tragedy” in the catalog, he was excited and curious.

Excited because, Hope said, only 42 known copies of the book exist outside the library.

“It wasn’t that the book had disappeared,” Hope said. “It’s just that it wasn’t on scholars’ radar because it wasn’t in a scholarly library. It didn’t appear on searches.”

Curious because there’s some mystery to the book, which is about a real-life murder in which a man gambles all his money away, comes home in despair and murders his wife and children.

For one thing, no one is quite sure who wrote it. Although the library’s copy had the name of William Shakespeare written on the title page, most Shakespeare experts don’t believe he wrote “A Yorkshire Tragedy.”

“If you read it, you probably will see why it’s not (from Shakespeare),” Hope said. “It’s pretty crude. It’s not very good. I mean, it has a certain elemental energy, but the writing never quite (comes across) in a way that you expect Shakespeare to.

“Quality judgment is not an absolute guide to attribution, but other scholars have looked at the linguistic features in terms of frequency of common words and other things, and on almost all of these measures, it comes out a long way away from Shakespeare.”

Hope believes the mistaken notion that Shakespeare wrote “A Yorkshire Tragedy” is attributed to the fact that it was performed as a play by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men.

“I think that led a lot of people to think that maybe Shakespeare did have something to do with it,” Hope said.

So, who wrote it?

“Good question,” Hope said.

Hope wasn’t in the Rare Book Room, however, to determine the author’s identity. Instead, he was looking for evidence and possible clues as to whether the book was sold unbound or as part of a quarto to determine its authenticity.

(In terms of size, think of a quarto as a paperback compared to a hardback book.)

Hope looked at several factors. One is what bibliographers call “ghosts,” which is a phenomenon that happens when two pieces of paper are forced up against each other and the ink transfers from one piece to the other.

“If this book was bound together with other plays, there might be an impression of the play that was bound in front of it and the play that was after it,” Hope said.

Hope also examined whether the book had “stab stitching.” It wasn’t cost effective for quarto books like “A Yorkshire Tragedy” to be bound through the spine. Instead, printers would bash three holes down the side, going through all the pages, and then tie them together with a single thread.

If stab stitching is evident, Hope said, it suggests the play was intended to be sold on its own because the printer stitched the pages together cheaply. If the stitches aren’t evident, it suggests the play was intended to be bound together in a larger volume.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

Although Hope did not find any stab stitching or evidence of “ghosts,” he said he saw nothing to make him doubt the library’s copy was printed in 1619 — unless it’s a complete fake, which would require a difficult and expensive process to produce. Also, Hope said, the paper is what he would expect from a book of that time, the damage and repairs are also normal for the type and age of the book, and “1619” was at the bottom of the title page.

As is often the case with old, rare books, Hope also found interesting annotations.

“There’s a little line drawn against every little passage that the reader clearly thinks is quotable or something like that,” Hope said. “Unfortunately, there tends to be a lot of obnoxious misogyny in the book, and it tends to be the most misogynist bits that get (the lines). But that’s something to me that is really exciting. You can see someone responding to this text.”

Hope said he also found repairs of tears on pages and that someone had rewritten text that had been lost, using a pen and mimicking the font of the book.

“It’s quite a normal practice in booksellers because it restores the value of a damaged text,” Hope said. “But that’s a unique thing about this copy. No other copy will have those exact repairs.”

Top photo: Jonathan Hope, professor in the English Department at Arizona State University, uses an LED light to look at the watermark on pages of a rare 1632 Second Folio of the works of William Shakespeare on Tuesday, Aug. 22, in the Burton Barr Central Library Rare Book Room. He was also there to examine a newly discovered 1619 copy of "A Yorkshire Tragedy," which was originally — and probably erronously — attributed to Shakespeare. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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