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Trinity’s “First Folio”

This year the world celebrates the 400th anniversary of the publication of the book now known as Shakespeare’s First Folio. Trinity College Dublin Library is proud to own the only copy known to remain in Ireland. While not exactly a rare book – slightly under a third of the print run of about 750 copies are still extant – it is not easy to come by, either. Very few remain in private hands and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC alone has collected over 80 copies! When it was printed, a copy cost about £1 – a great deal of money at the time. It was definitely a luxury item – in real terms costing about the equivalent of a high-end, brand new iPhone today. Even so, it had presumably sold out in under ten years as the “Second Folio” was printed in 1632, followed by a third in 1664 and a fourth in 1685.

Listing in the auction catalogue for Dr Browne’s library

By the time of Shakespeare’s death in 1616, only about half of his plays had appeared in print. Traditionally, folios (larger than most books) were reserved for prestigious projects, but Shakespeare was so prolific that his collected works had to be this size. Even with the text in two columns, it still runs to over 900 pages! Although Ben Jonson had published a folio-sized volume of his work in 1616, Shakespeare’s was the first to contain solely dramatic text. John Heminge and Henry Condell, friends of Shakespeare and members of his troupe of players, The King’s Men, collected and published the plays as official versions “where (before) you were abus’d with diverse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of iniurious imposters” as they say in their letter to the reader published at the front of the volume.

In 1805, Trinity College Dublin paid £26 11s. 6d for our copy of the First Folio when the library of Arthur Browne, a graduate and Fellow of the College, was auctioned after his death. He was Professor of both Law and Greek, a popular teacher and prodigious linguist, and MP for Trinity from 1783 until 1800. Browne has written on one of the preliminary blank leaves how to identify a true first edition, which he copied from a note he saw in Lord Charlemont’s copy.

There are plenty of signs that the book was well-used before it came to Trinity. One page of Henry V bears a paw print; there are what might be wine or coffee stains; a candle burn in Henry VI goes through several pages; RB (whom we have not yet been able to identify, but who may have been one of Arthur Browne’s children) has initialed some of the plays’ titles; some sections have been circled, crossed through or, in one instance in The Winter’s Tale, altered. Some pages have been repaired and, in these places, the text has been written in by hand in a perfect imitation of the printed font.

Readers often request the First Folio (shelfmark OL Safe 2.1), to consult individually or to hold classes with it in the reading room. However, wherever you are, you can now view every page online, thanks to our wonderful Digital Collections staff. Just click here: Digital Object Identifier. Happy reading!

Most of the information in this post comes from a talk given by Professor Andy Murphy of the School of English on 12 April 2023 in the Long Room Hub.

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