When a previously unknown copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio was discovered on the Isle of Bute in 2016, the story went viral in media outlets from Beijing to Malta, and from Vatican Radio to CNN. Why? My research on the biography of Shakespeare’s First Folio since its publication in 1623, attempts to answer the question of how a relatively common product of the early modern print industry became a collectable aesthetic object, even a secular relic. Why do we care about adding Folio number 235 to the list of extant copies in libraries from Auckland to Winchester College?
The First Folio gathered together Shakespeare’s collected plays in a large format posthumous publication. Eighteen of the plays included had not been previously published: for Macbeth, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night, among others, this was their first appearance in print. For the first century or so of its life, this was a book for reading - and early modern reading was an activity undertaken with pen in hand. Early readers doodled in the margins, marked passages and phrases of particular note, and sometimes made evaluative commentary on their reading. They also left a ghostly roll-call of their names: Joseph Batailhey, Ann Bruce, James Cassall, Mary Chapman, George Cook, Godfrey Copley, Edward Duke, John ffrasere, George Gwinn, L. Hatton, James Lakin, Jacob Lendarvis, John Nash, Thomas Polewheele, Henry Sheppard - men and women otherwise lost to history, but whose identities are preserved on First Folio pages.
New Shakespeare editions from the beginning of the eighteenth century changed the First Folio forever. It became a second-hand book - unwieldy compared to the smaller, multi-volume modern Shakespeares, old-fashioned when placed alongside the updated spelling and other interventions of Nicholas Rowe and his fellow scholars, difficult to read because it lacked the apparatus of stage directions and dramatis personae that these new texts made standard. But as the editorial work of the eighteenth century developed its theories of textual transmission, the First Folio began to emerge as the preferred authority. Pope, Johnson, Malone and Capell all worked on First Folios to produce their own edited texts. And this rise in the scholarly value of the book was soon mirrored by its price in booksellers’ catalogues. The First Folio gained its initial capital letters and its place in many aristocratic libraries by the beginning of the nineteenth century. By 1864, the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, a copy sold for a record price of £714. Its new owner, the philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts, commissioned an oak casket in which to store this valuable treasure.
Copies of the First Folio were must-haves for individuals and institutions seeking to assert their cultural and economic status: from the new colony of New Zealand, given one by its first governor Sir George Gray, to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, establishing itself as a site of literary pilgrimage in the railway age. Birmingham City Library bought one as part of its civic mission to educate working men, and constructed a panelled Elizabethan-style reading room to house it, still preserved in the new 2014 library building. American magnates in the Gilded Age bought up copies from impoverished English aristocrats, as expatriations of the First Folio came to symbolise the rising power of the US and the decline of the old world. These came to a head in 1905, when the Bodleian Library in Oxford tried to mobilise former students to contribute to a fund to buy back a copy of the book that the library had deaccessioned in the seventeenth century: snatching this prize from Folger was a matter of national as well as local honour.
Today, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC holds the majority of extant copies: over eighty First Folios. The second largest collection is in Meisei University just outside Tokyo - a testament to Japanese economic power and cultural ambition in the 1970s and 1980s. But there are copies all over the world, from Skipton in North Yorkshire to New South Wales, and from Dallas Texas to Padua, including two at Senate House, gifts of Sir Louis Sterling, and of Sir Edwin During-Lawrence. The Bodleian Library copy, snatched from under Folger’s nose, can be viewed online as a digital facsimile. This iconic book is most often now seen under glass, but its multiple copies tell their own colourful stories of use, exchange, collection, and, above all, enjoyment.
Emma Smith is the author of Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford.