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Shakespeare’s First Folio

What a year for William Shakespeare! The 23rd April 2016 will mark 400 years since the death of the greatest playwright in the English language, and by coincidence, a First Folio has recently been found in a Scottish stately home. The First Folio is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623. Without it, many of his plays would likely not have survived, and the First Folio is the most complete source for plays that have become famous in film and television in the 20th and 21st Centuries rather than just on stage.

William_Shakespeare's_first_folio
A First Folio in the Folger Shakespeare Library, the largest collection of copies anywhere in the world

Following the discovery of another copy in northern France two years ago and the recovery of Durham University Library’s stolen First Folio in 2008, this is a great find for Shakespeare scholars. While we’re used to the idea of all the copies of a book being identical, the way printing presses worked in the Seventeenth Century meant that corrections could be made later in the print run. The BBC reports that a stage direction in King Lear changes between the early and later parts of the print run, which is one of the signs that helps scholars tell the fakes from the real First Folios (Coughlan, 2016). While it is estimated that up to 750 could have been made, only around 230 are known to exist today (Durham University, 2015), many in libraries and special collections, but as with this latest copy, it is possible that others are out there, buried deep in private libraries and waiting to be discovered. First Folios are sold for millions of pounds when they go up for auction, so fakes are tempting and experts must think like detectives to ensure a fake isn’t declared real.

There have been some amazing adaptations of Shakespeare plays over the years. Check out our posts on Henry V and Romeo & Juliet, comparing some of the most well-known versions.

References

Chapman, J. (2014) Shakespeare’s First Folio behind glass at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36426670

Coughlin, S. (2016) Shakespeare First Folio discovered on Scottish island. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-35973094

Durham University (2015) Background to the Shakespeare Folio. Available at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/news/shakespeare_folio/background/

 

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