Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio’ holds some of the playwright’s earliest and most celebrated work
Although many of William Shakespeare’s plays had been published individually during his lifetime, the First Folio — published seven years after his death in 1623 — marked the first time that a collected edition of his works was printed.
Of the 36 plays that were included in the manuscript, half of them had never been in print before. Without the First Folio, it’s very likely that plays such as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It would have been lost to us forever.
The copy of the First Folio on display at the Morgan was the one originally given to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, England in 1623. However, just over forty years later, it left the Bodleian’s shelves for over two centuries.
According to John McQuillen, the curator of the “Marks of Genius” exhibit, the Bodleian sold their copy of the First Folio around 1664 when the Third Folio of Shakespeare’s plays was printed. “It was, in 1664-eyes, a better edition,” said McQuillen. “It was modern. It was brand-new. Why keep your old book around?”
The Bodleian’s First Folio remained in private hands for many years after that and its whereabouts were unknown until 1905, when it suddenly popped up in the hands of an Oxford undergraduate who had taken it to the Bodleian Library to ask for advice about having it rebound.
Once word got out about the recently discovered manuscript, an anonymous buyer offered the owners a bid of 3,000 pounds to purchase it (over $531,000 by 2014 standards). The owners offered the Bodleian the chance to match the offer, but lacking the funds to match such an extraordinary sum at the time, the Library decided to launch its first public fundraising campaign.
Although Oxford graduates were approached about donating to the campaign, many of the donations came in the form of small sums from people with no connection to the Bodleian Library at all, both from the United Kingdom and from US. “It was… what you might call an early ‘Kickstarter’ campaign,” McQuillen said.
Through these donations, the Bodleian was able to raise enough money to purchase back the book that had been lost to them for nearly 250 years.
And the anonymous buyer who offered the initial astronomical sum? He was later revealed to be Henry Clay Folger, who would go on to found the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, which houses the largest collection of First Folios in the world. Learn more on the Bodleian’s website.
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