This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio of William Shakespeare. Printed in November of 1623, Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies contained 36 known plays by the bard, 20 of which had never been printed before. The First Folio is a posthumous publication: seven years after Shakespeare’s death, a group of his colleagues gathered and edited the texts from earlier printings and manuscripts that had been collected from former players and producers.
Scholars believe that about 750 copies of the First Folio were printed between about February 1622 and November 1623. Some of the odd printing history is reflected in variants of the book where the type was reset and the order of the plays was changed, such as the play Troilus and Cressida, which was originally meant to follow Romeo and Juliet in the text, but was moved and reset while questions about the printing rights were resolved.
Of the original 750 copies printed, only 235 are known to have survived. The Washington, D.C. area has one of the highest number of First Folios anywhere in the world, largely because the Folger Shakespeare Library holds 82 copies–more than a third of extant copies. The Library of Congress is fortunate to own two copies of the First Folio in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
The Library acquired its first copy by purchase in 1889. It has the bookplate of Richard Wright, MD (1739-1786). Wright was a physician; born in Derbyshire, he attended Cambridge University where he received his A.B. in 1762 and his M.D. in 1773, and he was admitted as a Fellow to the Royal College of Physicians in 1775. Wright served as a physician at St. George’s Hospital in London from 1769 to 1785 and passed away on October 14, 1786.
Wright was a lover of literature, particularly drama and poetry, and his library of nearly 3,000 volumes of plays, poems, novels, Greek and Roman Classics, and historical medical books was sold at auction in London over the course of eleven days beginning on April 23, 1787. Included in the sale was his copy of the First Folio, which sold for 10 pounds. Clearly a lover of Shakespeare, his library also contained two copies of the Second Folio (printed in 1632), and a copy each of the Third (1663) and Fourth (1685) Folios with numerous other editions of plays and analyses of the Bard. (See these listed on page 73 of the auction catalog here).
After passing through the libraries of the family of Theodore Henry Broadhead, the volume made its way to auction by Sotheby’s in December, 1889, where it sold to E. G. Allen for the Library of Congress.
This copy is complete and in very good condition. The Library’s Conservation Division undertook extensive treatment of the volume in 1982, disbinding it, strengthening the paper where it was resewn, and giving it new covers bound in alum-tawed pigskin. The calfskin binding in which it arrived has been saved and housed in a conservation-grade box created to hold the book and its former binding together on the shelf.
The Library’s second copy of the First Folio came as a donation from book collector John Davis Batchelder in 1936. Batchelder’s collection included over 1,200 volumes meant to represent high points in Western literature and culture, from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Batchelder collected numerous volumes by and about William Shakespeare, including a 1599 printing of Romeo and Juliet.
In contrast to Wright’s copy, John Davis Batchelder’s First Folio is odd. Batchelder claimed that his copy was that of the Viscount Cholmondeley (pronounced “chumly”) and that he had purchased it from a dealer named H. G. Wells in New York in 1919 (possibly attempting to associate the seller with Gabriel Wells, who sold many First Folios during his career). But later analysis shows that Batchelder appears to have purchased two partial First Folios in the early 1920s and surreptitiously combined them; it is even likely that Batchelder added a bookplate of the Viscount Cholmondeley to bolster his story.
The Batchelder copy is missing several leaves, including the all-important title page with its engraved portrait of the author. Batchelder appears to have purchased a separate copy of the engraving and pasted it onto a facsimile of the title page from another source. An interesting aspect of this made-up copy is that it contains numerous annotations from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Some of the notes indicate when plays were first printed, and there are some references to “Bacon,” which may refer to the largely discredited theory that Sir Francis Bacon was the author of Shakespeare’s plays.
If Batchelder fabricated the provenance of his First Folio, it likely wasn’t for monetary gain but for the prestige of having owned one of the most famous books in the English language and donating it publicly to the world’s largest library.
Both of the Library’s First Folios are described in detail in Eric Rasmussen and Anthony James West’s census, The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue (London: Palgrave, 2012).
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