Shakespeare First Folio Acquired by the University of British Columbia

Open book with illustration of Shakespeare on the right-hand page
The image of the playwright on the title page is also just one of two portraits with “any claim to authenticity,” according to the British Library.  University of British Columbia

A rare first edition of William Shakespeare’s Comedies Histories and Tragedies, a volume containing 36 of Shakespeare’s 38 known plays is now in the collections of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Library. Known as the First Folio, the book will be on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) through March 20, reports Bridgette Watson for CBC News.

“The First Folio is a cornerstone of English literature and with this donation, we are able to bring this cultural treasure into public ownership,” says Katherine Kalsbeek, head of rare books and special collections at UBC Library, in a statement.

The UBC Library purchased the volume, formerly owned by a private collector in the U.S., through a Christie’s auction in New York. Only 235 copies of the First Folio are in extant with most held in the U.S. and in the U.K.; the new purchase is only Canada’s second, the statement says. 

Published in 1623, the First Folio, according to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. is an “extraordinary book.” The Folger, which owns 82 copies, is a center for study of the rare volumes. Had the First Folio not been published several of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar,The Tempest and As You Like It may never have survived, according to the Folger.

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Following the Bard’s death in August 1616, friends of the playwright, including John Heminge and Henry Condell, compiled and edited Shakespeare’s manuscripts and working drafts, as well as earlier printed editions of some of the scripts to produce an authoritative version of each play. This helped correct the spread of “bad quartos”—pirated versions of the work reconstructed from memory. The editors then divided the plays into comedies, tragedies and histories, according to the British Library, which owns five.

Experts estimate that around 750 copies were originally printed and the image of Shakespeare on the title page is one of only two portraits that according to the British Library, have “any claim to authenticity.” Martin Droeshout, the engraver of the image, probably never met Shakespeare, but he most likely rendered the visage of the playwright based on the memories of others or from an earlier portrait. The portrait, said the writer Ben Jonson, who was both a friend and a rival of Shakespeare’s, and who penned the verse  “To the Reader” in the First Folio, indicates that the image is accurate.

The university says it can’t disclose the purchase price under an agreement with Christie’s. In October 2020, another First Folio sold for nearly $10 million, making it the most expensive work of literature ever sold at auction and one of only six copies to remain in private hands. That one was sold by Mills College in California and purchased by New York antiquarian Stephan Loewentheil; however, Gregory Mackie, an English literature scholar at UBC, tells CBC that the copy purchased by the college was substantially less expensive because it isn’t in pristine condition.

open book
The folio collected 36 of Shakespeare’s 38 known plays, half of which hadn’t been printed at the time of his death. University of British Columbia

“For us—for universities, for institutions, for scholars and students—books that have been messed with over the centuries are far more interesting,” Mackie tells the CBC, and explained that a lost page in this version was replaced in the 18th century by another that came from a second edition once owned by Samuel Johnson, who edited his own eight-volume edition of Shakespeare’s work published in 1765. “And this one has been messed with in a really, really fascinating way,” says Mackie.

Scholars at UBC anticipate the learning opportunities that the First Folio offers: “Having the book here in Vancouver in 2021 on the unceded lands of the Musqueam people allows us to do what scholars around the world have been doing for a while now, and that is to think about Shakespeare’s work in place-based terms,” says English language and literature expert Patricia Badir in the statement. “The book’s presence here will provide us with opportunities to think about how Shakespeare’s works have been agents of colonialism and provoke us to think about the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays can help us think through local iterations of global questions about sexuality and gender, religious tolerance, politics and power, race and social justice, and even climate justice.”

In addition to the book itself, the VAG exhibition, “For All Time: The Shakespeare First Folio.” features three copies of subsequent editions of Shakespeare’s work from later in the 17th century. The museum will also offer an animated display showing annotated pages of the books. Visitors will also have access to an augmented reality feature from their smartphones that will simulate a Shakespearean figure to appear in the museum atrium with accompanying audio passages from the plays.

“We haven’t done an exhibition quite like this before,” VAG Director Anthony Kiendl tells Benjamin Sutton of the Art Newspaper. “These digital features are really animating the texts.”

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