Paw prints, burn marks and a mysterious code … Ireland’s only copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio has all the hall marks of a book that was much used and much loved.
The highly-regarded volume is the centrepiece of a new exhibition in the Library of Trinity College Dublin entitled ‘Shakespeare the Irishman’ marking 400 years since the Bard’s complete works were first published. Both a physical exhibition and online version of the Library exhibition were launched last night in the Old Library [Thurs, April 13th] by Trinity alumna and author Anne Enright.
The first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays was published in 1623, seven years after his death. Without it, half of his plays would have been lost. Surviving copies of the First Folio are among the most highly-sought after books in the world.
Trinity’s copy was acquired at the auction of the library of the late academic Arthur Browne after his death in 1805. Since then the First Folio has been one of the most cherished items in the Library’s collections.
Helen Shenton, Librarian & College Archivist, commented:
“This exhibition is part of the global celebrations of ‘the book that gave us Shakespeare’ – without the publication of the First Folio we would have lost half of Shakespeare’s plays. It is important to Trinity and Ireland because we have the only copy of the First Folio on the island. It is the highlight of the extensive Shakespearean material in our Library collections. It’s fantastic that it can be seen in the exhibition here in the Old Library and in its digitised form through the Virtual Trinity Library.”
Andy Murphy, Professor of English and curator of the exhibition, commented:
“This exhibition tells the story of Trinity’s copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, one of the jewels in the crown of the Library’s collection. While in good condition, it’s clear that it was a much beloved and read volume. Evidence of burn marks, drink stains, paw prints, and mysterious symbols, which have yet to be deciphered, tell us that this is a book that has been used and abused, but always cherished.
“In Ireland, Shakespeare’s plays have always been deeply intertwined with politics. The exhibition explores how his plays were adopted and adapted in Ireland focusing on his centrality to 18th century ascendancy colonial culture; his influence on 19th century Irish nationalists such as Wolfe Tone, James Connolly, and Patrick Pearse and the translation of some of his work into the Irish language in the 20th century.”
The exhibition marks the launch of the Trinity Centre for the Book a new research centre hosted in the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute in collaboration with the Library, which will co-ordinate and share research on the rich cultural and social importance of books of all types.
Mark Faulkner, Ussher Assistant Professor in Medieval Literature and Director of the Trinity Centre for the Book, commented:
“As this exhibition demonstrates, Trinity’s Library has an outstanding collection of Shakespearean material; and this excellence is mirrored in its holdings of medieval manuscripts, early printed books and the archives of authors, politicians, thinkers and many others. The new Trinity Centre for the Book will harness these outstanding collections and the university’s significant concentration of experts across its three faculties and the Library to further our understanding of one of society’s most important technologies – the book.”
More about the Trinity Centre for the Book:
The Trinity Centre for the Book, hosted in Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, in collaboration with the Library, aspires to make Trinity a globally recognised centre for the study, understanding and sharing of the book. The centre will capitalise on Trinity’s outstanding Library collections that span thousands of years, from the Egyptian Books of the Dead to the Library’s rapid response collecting initiative ‘Living in Lockdown’ – a hybrid collection of physical works and born digital submissions. It will also harness the university’s significant concentration of expertise, with more than 150 researchers publishing over 1,000 works on book history over the last ten years. The centre will examine all aspects of the history of the book to broaden our understanding of its rich cultural and social importance. This will include the key role it has played in communicating knowledge and lived experience for millennia, to recent developments in non-alphabetic forms of communication such as emojis and the emergence of AI-driven content generation engines such as ChatGPT. See more here
More about Trinity’s First Folio:
The First Folio is one of the most highly-regarded books in the world. Trinity holds the only copy of the book on the island of Ireland. It formerly belonged to Arthur Browne, who was born in New England into a family with strong Irish connections. He studied at Trinity and settled in Dublin. Browne was a distinguished lawyer and an academic at Trinity, where he was both Prof of Law and Prof of Greek. At the time Trinity had its own seat in the Irish parliament and Browne was MP for Trinity from 1783 until parliament was dissolved in 1800. Trinity’s copy of the volume, while in good condition, includes evidence of its having been well used by readers over the decades with evidence of burn marks; drink stains; paw prints; and annotations. The most intriguing aspect of Trinity’s copy is a page that includes a set of inscriptions on one of its blank pages. These are yet to be deciphered, but are most likely shorthand symbols. Trinity purchased the book at the sale of Browne’s books in the wake of his death in 1805 paying £26 11s 6d for the volume.