William Shakespeare's characters could be described as "adulterous," "depraved," "scandalous" and "miraculous," but the Bard himself did not use those words until they appeared in a 1603 English translation of the works of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.
A first edition of the translation, which scholars have credited with introducing 750 new words into Shakespeare's vocabulary, is part of a unique collection that has been given to UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library.
"With a couple of exceptions, the collection only contains books that Shakespeare read or could have read," said Bruce Whiteman, the Clark Library's head librarian. "So now you can come to the Clark and learn much of what Shakespeare may have known. But I'm afraid you still won't be able to write like him. Most of us never get to that level."
Valued at just under $2 million and consisting of 72 books published between 1479 and 1731, among them several printings of Shakespeare's works, the collection is the largest gift ever given to the rare book library, which was built in 1926 and is located in Los Angeles' historic West Adams District.
Even before the gift, the Clark boasted the second largest Shakespeare collection on the West Coast, but the new holdings significantly enhance the library's reputation, adding to its collection a quarto — a very early printing of a Shakespeare play — and two folios, which are posthumously printed complete collections of Shakepeare's plays, as well as two pieces of folios. The Clark is now home to 14 complete Shakespeare folios and 11 separate Shakespeare plays that were published during or immediately after the Bard's lifetime.
The gift was assembled over the past two decades by Paul Chrzanowski, 60, a bibliophile and a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Chrzanowski began collecting rare books in 1985 after focusing on antiquarian maps. He started buying fine press books and then turned his attention to books that Shakespeare read or might have read.
"Even 20 years ago this was a brave undertaking, as such books were already very scarce on the market, not to mention expensive," Whiteman said.
Chrzanowski traces his enthusiasm for Shakespeare back to high school. But attending college productions of Shakespeare plays at Cambridge and Oxford universities while completing postdoctoral studies in the mid-1970s really heightened his interest, he said.
While book collectors are notorious for not reading their precious possessions, Chrzanowski estimates that he's plowed through about 90 percent of the collection, driven by a fascination with the way Middle English evolved into modern English.
The collection also offers a telling glimpse into the inspirations behind the playwright and poet whose influences have to be inferred because so few direct ties exist to any of his contemporaries.
"Shakespeare left no diary, personal letters, handwritten manuscripts of his plays or notes in his own handwriting, so scholars really have to scour possible sources for connections," Whiteman said.
"Montaigne's Essays" has been credited with influencing not just the vocabulary but also the themes of 15 Shakespeare plays as diverse as the dark tragedy "King Lear" and the sunny comedy "All's Well That Ends Well."
Other highlights of the Chrzanowski Collection include:
- "The First and Second Volume of the Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande," a 1587 history by the English chronicler Raphael Holinshed that Shakespeare used for most of his history plays, for the plot of "Macbeth" and for portions of "King Lear" and "Cymbeline."
- The first edition of Thomas North's translation of "Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans," which was published in 1579 and was the basis for Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," "Coriolanus" and "Antony and Cleopatra."
- A second edition of the King James translation of the Bible, which was published in 1613.
- "Rhomeo and Julietta," a story drawn from a 1567 collection of 60 tales from Italian and classical sources translated into English by William Painter. Shakespeare turned it into the drama "Romeo and Juliet."
- A fourth edition folio of the complete plays of Shakespeare, which was published in 1685.
- A 1619 quarto of "King Henry the Sixth," which is valued at more than $100,000.
- "The Cordyal of the Four Last and Final Thinges," a well-known work on eschatology printed by William Caxton, who was England's first printer, in 1479. Although no link has been established to Shakespeare, the book is one of several fine examples of very early English printed books. Only 11 other copies are known to exist. The book is valued at more than $200,000.
In addition to being old, scarce and influential, some of the books also enjoy the distinction of having passed through famous hands. Past owners include media mogul and collector William Randolph Hearst, late American film and stage actor Sir John Barrymore, 18th-century English radical politician John Wilkes and John Lockwood Kipling, the father of British author and poet Rudyard Kipling. But, alas, the Bard's own bookplate is nowhere to be seen.
"No book from Shakespeare's library is known to survive," Whiteman said.
Given the historic connection between Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and the University of California, Chrzanowski wanted the books to go to the UC system. He said he chose the Clark for its existing strengths and its reputation as a resource for research.
"These are books that Mr. Clark would have wanted in his library," Chrzanowski said. "The Clark will be a fine home for them, and I am pleased that the collection will now be available for students and scholars to use."