No one in history has had such a colossal impact on English literature and language as William Shakespeare. Oft-quoted, imitated, and acted on stages throughout the world, many of the words of Shakespeare could have been lost for ever had it not been for John Heminge and Henry Condell, the writer’s friends and fellow actors, who compiled Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, often referred to as the ‘First Folio’.
Published 400 years ago, in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the First Folio brought together the author’s collected plays for the first time. The folio edition contains 36 plays, including 17 that were printed during his lifetime, one that was printed after his death, and 18 that might otherwise have been lost — among them Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure and Julius Caesar.
To mark the 400th anniversary of their publication, Christie’s is bringing together six copies of the First Folio and exhibiting them from 2 to 26 May 2023. It will be the largest exhibition of First Folios ever assembled in the United Kingdom (surpassing the display of four copies at the British Library a century ago).
Margaret Ford, Christie’s International Head of Books & Manuscripts in London, says the exhibition will not only tell the story of the Folio’s publication, ‘but by bringing together multiple copies, it will chronicle the life of one of the most important books printed across the centuries’.
Idioms such as ‘be-all and end-all’ and ‘one fell swoop’ — both from Macbeth — and the ‘unkindest cut of all’, which appeared in Julius Caesar, might never have entered the popular lexicon if not for this literary masterpiece.
John Heminge and Henry Condell were actors and shareholders in the Globe Theatre and were ultimately able to buy enough of a stake to own half of the theatre between them. They were each bequeathed 26 shillings and eight pence in Shakespeare’s will.
During the Bard’s lifetime, actors would have been given a manuscript of Shakespeare’s text to prepare for their roles: ‘possibly not the entire play, just their own part,’ notes Ford. These were often discarded after use, which explains why there are no surviving manuscripts from Shakespeare’s time. It also means that the plays might have been lost for ever had it not been for the efforts of Heminge and Condell.
‘Their work in assembling the First Folio is particularly important because they not only gathered the plays, but they went to great pains to establish an accurate text, as close to Shakespeare’s original words as possible,’ says the specialist. ‘This is also the first time these plays were definitively codified as histories, tragedies and comedies.’
The importance of the publication would only increase with time. ‘By the 18th century,’ explains Ford, ‘books had come to be considered objects of art in their own right, elevating the First Folio to new heights; it was treasured not only for its text but as a physical object.’
From an original print run of perhaps 750, there remain around 235 copies of the First Folio — most of them incomplete.
The exhibition includes the Arundel Castle copy, one of only five complete First Folios to remain in private hands, which is being exhibited in public for the first time, courtesy of the Duke of Norfolk. The Arundel Castle copy is unique in being owned by a family whose ancestor appears as a character in the plays: Richard II opens with a quarrel between Thomas Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk, and Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford.
Also appearing in the Christie’s exhibition, courtesy of a private owner, is the Halliwell-Watson First Folio, once owned by arguably the greatest Shakespeare editor of the 19th century, James Orchard Halliwell. As well as being one of the founding members of the Shakespeare Society, Halliwell was also an avid Shakespeare collector: he bought, sold and traded copies of the Bard’s plays, and at one point owned no fewer than six imperfect copies of the First Folio. This is the first time it has ever been shown in public.
The Senate House Library at the University of London is loaning the Gray-Blatchford-Sterling copy (above) — the earliest recorded First Folio in America. It crossed the Atlantic when it was acquired by Francis Calley Gray (1790-1856), very likely on his visit to England in 1830. A politician who counted Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams among his acquaintances, Gray was a major patron of the arts in Boston.
Other Americans soon followed Gray’s lead, and Winsor’s 1876 census recorded 18 copies in America. Today there are more copies of the First Folio in America than anywhere else in the world, thanks largely to the Folger Shakespeare Library alone holding 82.
Sidney Lee’s census of 1902 was the first systematic effort to record the number and location of all surviving copies. He was aided in his work by Mary Edgcumbe Blatchford, who owned this copy of the First Folio from 1879.
The Gray-Blatchford-Sterling copy was bequeathed to the University of London in 1956 by Sir Louis Sterling, an American expatriate and gramophone pioneer.
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No other auction house has sold as many copies of the First Folio as Christie’s. The most recent was offered in New York in October 2020, where it realised $9,978,000 to set a new world-record price for a First Folio. The record had previously been established in October 2001, when the Dryden-Puleston-Bemis copy realised $6,166,000, also at Christie’s in New York.
Shakespeare’s First Folio: The First Four Hundred Years is on view at Christie’s in London, 2-26 May 2023. The Halliwell-Watson copy will remain on display for the 30 May edition of Christie’s Lates