5 Dec 2011

Bodleian treasures: Shakespeare’s First Folio

“For as reliable an account as possible of what Shakespeare wrote, the First Folio is it – not just for scholars but for actors and directors,” says Channel 4 News Culture Editor Matthew Cain.

Treasures of the Bodleian exhibition in Oxford

The First Folio refers to the 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s works, published seven years after the playwright’s death. It contains 36 of his plays, excluding only Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

The British Library holds two of the several hundred remaining copies of the first edition. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC owns 82 copies.

Editions of the First Folio are among the most valuable printed books in the world. In 2003 Oriel College, Oxford, sold its copy to the late Sir Paul Getty for a rumoured £3m. A complete copy of the book was sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for £2.5m.

If we’re trying to get back to as reliable an account as possible of what Shakespeare wrote, this is it. Matthew Cain

The Bodleian originally received its copy of the First Folio in 1624 as part of the its copyright arrangement – it is thought it may have been the library’s first collection of plays.

What is interesting about the Bodleian’s copy of the First Folio is that the library decided to dispose of it with the publication of the Third Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1664.

That copy disappeared until 1905, when a Magdalen College student, Gladwyn Turbot, presented the then sub-librarian with the book. The binding and the hole on the back (marking where it had been chained in the library) identified it as the Bodleian’s original First Folio acquisition.

A bidding war ensued between the library and a wealthy anonymous buyer. More than 80 subscribers helped the Bodleian to raise the necessary £3,000 to buy the collected edition.

The current Bodleian archives include the correspondence of those who contributed to the fund – as well as the names of those Oxford notables who did NOT contribute.