Shakespeare's First Folio on a red cushion

Shakespeare’s First Folio on display for 400th anniversary

One of the world’s finest copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio will go on rare display today in London’s Guildhall Library as part of events to mark 400 years since it was published.

The City of London Corporation will display its copy for just five hours between 10:30am and 3:30pm, along with a 10-minute talk given on the hour throughout the day.

The copy has not been displayed to the public since 2016.

Folio400 marks the 400th anniversary of the First Folio, the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s works, of which only 750 were published on the 8th November 1623, and was sold unbound to the public for 15 shillings.

The First Folio could be bought in Edward Blount’s bookshop unbound for 15 shillings- which was a lot of money- actors, at the time, would earn around a shilling a day. CREDIT: The City of London Corporation

It is considered one of the most important and valuable collections of plays ever written and published in the English language.

Morever, a copy sold at Christie’s in New York in 2020 for almost ten million dollars, to Stephan Loewentheil, president and founder of the 19th-Century Rare Book & Photography Shop.

Until 1622, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays were published in pamphlets – known as ‘Quartos’.

It fell upon his friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, fellow actors, and shareholders in the company – The King’s Men – to gather together the plays which had not been printed.

Dr Peter Ross, who has been the principal librarian at the library for the past 11 years, said: “We owe them a huge debt. They really did save 18 of Shakespeare’s plays. Those include Macbeth, one of my own favourites, As You Like It, which one of the most famous comedies ever written, Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.”

The Guildhall Library is about half a mile from the location of Jaggard’s Print House, where the First Folio was printed in 1623, opposite St Mary Aldermanbury Garden, where Heminges and Condell are buried.

Their contribution to preserving Shakespeare’s iconic works is commemorated there with a memorial to the book, featuring a bust of Shakespeare.

Dr. Ross added: “We have the First Folio that’s closest to its point of Genesis, where it was born essentially.

“There are 235 First Folio’s in the world and less than a quarter of those are complete, most of them are damaged or incomplete or made up from other copies. There are only about 60 complete copies in the world.

“Shakespeare’s birthday is on Sunday, and they believe the day he died, so I thought let’s do it as close as possible to that. So since we don’t open on a Sunday, we decided on Monday.

“There are various reasons it is on display just for one day. I am the only person that handles it. We don’t like to handle it too much because every time you open a book of that status, it will do a slight bit of damage. We try to handle it as little as possible.

“It’s kept in our most secure location, which is both temperatures controlled and humidity controlled, and once a month the space it is kept in is inspected by our conservators who check the temperature and humidity.

“Humidity is the key thing- if it gets too damp, it starts to cockle. The pages start to fold up and if it gets too dry the pages get rather brittle. So, we keep it in a specially made box in the most secure part of the library.”

From September, the copy will go on display in a small exhibition in the Guildhall Art Gallery, funded by the City of London Corporation.

On display will be other iconic Shakespeare items, including The Shakespeare Deed, which dates from 1613, one of only three documents with Shakespeare’s signature- only five signatures survive in total.

Admission to the Guildhall Library is free and no booking is required.

Featured Image Credit: The City of London Corporation

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