To commemorate the 400th birthday of the first printed edition of William Shakespeare’s collected plays in 1623, the ‘First Folio’ will go on public display at the Hunterian Art Gallery on 22 and 23 April 2023. The University of Glasgow’s First Folio is currently held in the Library’s Archives & Special Collections, as one of three remaining copies in Scottish collections.
Approximately 750 copies of the First Folio were printed. 235 are known to have survived with 50 copies still in the UK, 149 in the USA and 36 held elsewhere in the world (nine of which are listed as missing).
Speaking with The Glasgow Guardian, Julie Gardham, Senior Librarian from Archives & Special Collections at the University of Glasgow, said: “It is always a joy to show our First Folio to students at the University.
“It is a complex ‘made up’ volume, formed from combining two or three different imperfect copies to create a whole. In common with most other surviving First Folios, the book shows considerable signs of wear and use, and many of its pages are stained and dirt engrained. This evidence of heavy use by previous owners can offer us historical insights into reading habits, and this copy is particularly important for its early annotations that were made by a reader who had evidently seen Shakespeare’s plays being acted contemporaneously.
“At first glance, it seems to be dilapidated and imperfect but turning its pages and seeing the annotations of an early owner who ‘knew’ some of the actors and comments on the plays gives us a thrilling direct connection to Shakespeare’s time.”
The Folio contains 36 plays, 18 of which were previously unpublished, thereby saving works such as The Tempest and Macbeth from probable extinction, Gardham explains.
“If it was not for this book, you would not be able to go and see a performance of Macbeth, since there would not be any documentary evidence for it. The only way that play has survived and is able to be enjoyed, studied, and talked about, is the fact that it was printed in this book in 1623… If it was not for this book there would be only half of Shakespeare that we know.”
Professor Adrian Streete, Head of English Literature at the University of Glasgow, said: “Today the First Folio is a literary and cultural monument, as several of those involved in collecting and printing Shakespeare’s plays four hundred years ago hoped it would be. Yet in 1623, the publishing of the First Folio was an expensive and risky undertaking. Shakespeare’s popularity was not then what it would become later.”
The First Folio’s exhibition at the Hunterian is part of the Folio400 celebrations across the UK and Ireland. The Scottish-held copies that will be accessible to the public in 2023 are at the University of Glasgow, the National Library of Scotland and Mount Stuart Trust. An extensive range of rare and internationally important collections can be found at Glasgow University Archives and Special Collections, on Level 12 of the University Library, and is accessible to students after booking a visit over the Appointment Booking System.