Shakespeare's First Folio on Display at U of T Rare Book Library
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Shakespeare’s First Folio on Display at U of T Rare Book Library

Apparently age cannot wither the 400-year-old tome, nor custom stale its infinite variety.

“When the age is in,” says Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, “the wit is out”—yet the wit of William Shakespeare remains intact in the University of Toronto’s 400-year-old copy of the First Folio, on display this month at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

Published in 1623, the First Folio—or, as it’s officially known, Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies: Published according to the True Originall Copies—brought the Bard’s dramatic works together in one volume for the first time. About 750 copies were printed in total; the Fisher Library’s is the only copy in Canada, and one of just 232 remaining in the world.

“It truly is an iconic work of literature,” says the library’s director, Anne Dondertman. And because the First Folio put to press 18 of Shakespeare’s previously unpublished plays, she adds, “it also had an effect even more broadly.” Were it not for those works, after all, we wouldn’t have the name Miranda (invented for The Tempest), nor the greatest stage direction of all time (“Exit, pursued by a bear,” from The Winter’s Tale), nor a highly effective means of driving actors up the wall.

Members of Shakespeare’s acting company, The King’s Men, compiled the First Folio seven years after the playwright’s death in 1616. Plays were widely read at the time as popular literature, Dondertman says, but they were usually published (as some of Shakespeare’s were) individually and on the cheap—the Jacobean equivalent of pulp fiction. The comprehensive and lavishly appointed First Folio marked a departure from the norm, she explains: “The plays had never been treated in that kind of authoritative way before.”

U of T’s specimen has a long and well-documented provenance; Dondertman says ownership of the book can be traced back “well into the 17th century.” In the past 391 years it has been owned by bankers and businessmen, politicians and pastors—most of them avid collectors and bibliophiles. Some owners branded the front pastedown with ornamental bookplates; one even pressed between the pages a rosebud, the impression of which is still visible today. The book crossed the Atlantic three times before it arrived in Toronto in 1973 and became the premier attraction at the newly opened Fisher Library.

The book remains in excellent condition despite its age—or perhaps even because of it. As was the case with many books of the period, it was made with thick, high-quality paper. “This was before paper started being made with pulp and acid,” Dondertman says, “so it would still have been made with cotton or linen rags—and it will last a long, long time.” The completeness of the Fisher Library text in particular is remarkable: of its 900 pages, only the title page and a page containing a verse by Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson are inauthentic (both were reproduced at some point in the 19th century by famed facsimile maker John Harris).

Dondertman says the First Folio took “a lot of work and expense” to produce—but evidently Shakespeare’s old acting troupe was onto something. “They did it because they really wanted to preserve the plays for posterity,” Dondertman says. “Even at the time they must have recognized … there was something extraordinary about him.”

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