Copies of first printed Shakespeare plays go on display for 400th anniversary

The First Folio was first published in 1623.
The First Folio was first published in 1623.

Three copies of the first printed edition of William Shakespeare’s plays will go on display in Scotland to mark 400 years since it was first published.

The booklets will be available for viewing at the University of Glasgow, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and Mount Stuart, on the Isle of Bute, at different times this year.

The display marks the 400th anniversary of the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s collection of plays, commonly referred to by modern scholars as the First Folio.

It was first published in 1623, about seven years after the playwright’s death, and is considered one of the most influential books ever written.

Shakespeare First Folio
About 235 copies of the First Folio are known to survive (Christie’s/PA)

Only 18 of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in print during his lifetime, and some of these were in corrupt or pirated editions, literary experts said.

Professor Adrian Streete, head of English literature at the University of Glasgow, said publishing the First Folio was “an expensive and risky undertaking” at the time.

“Shakespeare’s popularity was not then what it would become later,” he said.

The First Folio collection contains 36 plays, 18 of which were published for the first time, and therefore saving such works as The Tempest and Macbeth from probable extinction.

About 750 copies were printed of which 235 are known to have survived, with 50 copies still in the UK, 149 in the US and 36 in other countries – nine of which are listed as missing.

The three folios going on display in Scotland are in three different collections, with three different stories to tell.

Professor Streete added: “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 university’s copy will be on display for one weekend only from April 22 to 23 at The Hunterian Art Gallery.

The National Library of Scotland’s head of rare books, maps and music, Helen Vincent, said the display throughout 2023 will tie in with the book’s birthday in November 1623, when it was first offered for sale.

“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,” she said.

The library’s copy of the First Folio will go on display in its “Treasures” exhibition at George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, from September this year.

The Mount Stuart Trust’s librarian, Elizabeth Ingham, said the trust is “delighted” to display the Bute Collection’s First Folio from April 17 until May 3.

“We can’t wait to share the wonders of Shakespeare’s work with school groups and our visitors to Mount Stuart this April,” she added.