Celebrating Shakespeare’s First Folio across Scotland

This year is the 400th birthday of the First Folio, the first printed edition of William Shakespeare’s collected plays. As part of the UK and Ireland Folio400 celebrations, three copies in Scottish collections will go on public display throughout 2023. 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. Only 18 of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in print during his lifetime, and some of these were in corrupt or pirated editions. The First Folio collection contains 36 plays, 18 of which were here published for the first time, thus saving such works as The Tempest and Macbeth from probable extinction. About 750 copies of the 1623 First Folio were printed. 235 are known to have survived with 50 copies still in the UK, 149 in USA and 36 in other corners of the world (nine of which are listed as ‘missing’).

A monument to the enduring power of literature

An image of Shakespeare First Folio which was published 400 years ago in 1623. Photo: Martin Shields.

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 story of how Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies became the First Folio is a long and complicated one, bound up with shifting ideas of literary prestige, the theatre, and national identity. But the First Folio remains a monument to the enduring power of literature to help us make sense of ourselves and others, and to imagine new and better worlds.”

The Scottish books are three different folios, in three very different collections, with three different stories to tell. The National Library of Scotland’s Head of Rare Books, Maps and Music, Helen Vincent said: “We’ve seen everyone from school children to actors to researchers fascinated by the First Folio and the stories it contains, so we’re looking forward to bringing it to a wide audience in our Treasures exhibition. It will be on display for the actual birthday of the book in November – the month it was first offered for sale in 1623. I’m sure the people who put such effort into producing this book would love to know that 400 years later, their dedication to preserving and sharing all of Shakespeare’s plays continues to have such a profound impact on culture in all its forms.”

Folio400 aims to arrange, encourage and promote an array of shows to celebrate the 400th birthday of the First Folio, the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays, in 2023.  Folio Day, the 23 April 2023, Shakespeare’s birthday, will launch the Folio Season. A number of both institutional and Private First Folio owners will make their copies available to be viewed by the public across the UK and Ireland including the three Scottish institutions.

For more information on Folio400 see: www.folio400.com

Main photo: Julie Gardham, Senior Assistant Librarian, and Keira McKee, Book Conservator, with the University of Glasgow’s First Folio. Photo: Martin Shields.

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