Shakespeare’s First Folio: State Library of NSW takes the Bard’s ‘radical’ 400-year-old book out of the vault | Culture

Shakespeare’s First Folio: State Library of NSW takes the Bard’s ‘radical’ 400-year-old book out of the vault | Culture

It is one of the most valuable books in Australia, both for its cultural importance and the price copies fetch on the high-end auction market.

Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, commonly referred to as the First Folio, marked its 400th anniversary this year, and the only copy of the work in Australia has been taken out of its temperature controlled, darkened vault and is now on display at the State Library of NSW.

On Thursday, visiting scholar Ewan Fernie, the chair, professor and fellow at the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon, will deliver a public lecture at the library about the significance of the First Folio, and the bond between a copy in Sydney and another in Birmingham.

“It’s arguably the most important secular book in western culture,” Fernie told the Guardian from his University of Birmingham headquarters.

“Were it not for the First Folio, we wouldn’t have half of Shakespeare’s plays today.”

Shakespeare’s First Folio at the State Library of NSW
A copy of the First Folio was sold by Christie’s at auction in 2020 for US $9.98m. Photograph: State Library of NSW

That includes Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew and more than a dozen other works among the 37 tragedies, comedies and histories in the folio, fewer than half of which were published in the Bard’s own lifetime.

“It was quite a radical thing to do, because folios were prestigious big books,” Fernie said.

“They were so expensive to produce and suggested monumentally important content … politically important history, religious polemics, that sort of stuff … The folio [format] is saying look, this matters, this is a prestigious achievement, which was itself a new thing for plays.”

Not unprecedented, however. In 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, friend and creative rival Ben Jonson became one of the first pioneers in self-publishing, releasing his own folio of works. Seven years later, it was Jonson who urged Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell to do the same for their dead colleague, whose plays were in danger of falling out of fashion.

The result was, according to veteran British actor Simon Callow, a “posthumous assertion of Shakespeare’s supremacy as a dramatist”.

Prof Ewan Fernie, chair, professor and fellow at the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon, UK
Prof Ewan Fernie, chair, professor and fellow at the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon, says that ‘without this book … Shakespeare would not be a global cultural figure’. Photograph: Australian Catholic University

It is believed about 750 copies of the First Folio were printed, but the whereabouts of only about 235 are known today. In the rarefied world of rare book collecting, that doesn’t make the First Folio exceptionally rare, yet it continues to hold status as one of the most expensive books in the world.

In 2020, a copy sold by Christie’s went for US $9.98m, a record price for a work of literature put under the hammer by the New York auction house.

Maggie Patton, the State Library of NSW’s head of collection, acquisition and curation, does not believe Australia’s only First Folio is the most expensive book in the library’s collection. That honour goes to The Birds of America by naturalist, painter and enslaver John James Audubon, published between 1827 and 1838. In 2010 Sotheby’s in London sold a first edition of The Birds of America for £7,321,250.

“But when you combine the story behind the First Folio, its whole literary significance, as well as its monetary value, it’s a rare book of immeasurable cultural value,” Patton said.

“It is widely considered to be one of the most important books ever published in English.”

The State Library of NSW’s copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, in its oak casket sourced from Arden Forest.
The State Library of NSW’s copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, in a casket of oak reportedly sourced from Arden Forest. Photograph: State Library of NSW

The First Folio continues to be feted, according to Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University and author of Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, because “without this book, half of Shakespeare’s plays would have been lost, and without them, Shakespeare would not be a global cultural figure”.

Fernie, who is in the BBC’s three-part documentary marking the First Folio’s 400th anniversary – and sharing the camera with luminaries such as Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Brian Cox – said the copy of the book housed in the world’s first major Shakespeare library in the world, in Birmingham, shared the same benefactor as the one now in the State Library of NSW.

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Birmingham industrialist brothers Richard and George Tangye, who pioneered a number of heavy manufacturing tools including the hydraulic lift, donated a First Folio for the opening of the Birmingham museum in 1864. Two decades later, after visiting Australia and establishing business operations in Sydney and Melbourne, the Tangyes decided Sydney was on a tangential growth to their home town – still five years away from being granted city status by Queen Victoria. In 1884 the brothers bought a second First Folio and gave it to what was then called the Sydney Free Public Library. They paid £850 for the volume, about A$250,000 in today’s money.

The book arrived in Australia the following year, encased in a casket reportedly hewn from oak grown in the ancient forest of Arden in the Midlands, the setting for As You Like It, another of Shakespeare’s plays that may have been lost forever if the First Folio had never been published.

By the 1880s, Sydney’s convict era had long passed. But it could be fair to assume many of the colony’s residents, including the majority of its schoolboys, may have harboured sentiments shared more recently by Diane Morgan’s alter ego Philomena Cunk, who in the 2016 mockumentary Cunk on Shakespeare suggested to her audience the playwright might not have been anything more than “a bald guy who could write with a feather”. School in Shakespeare’s day, Cunk concluded, would have been much easier “because they didn’t have to study Shakespeare”.

Fernie has spent a 30-year career promoting a more “democratic and inclusive” Shakespeare and making it accessible to the wider population, including in his capacity as director of the £2m lottery-funded Everything to Everybody project.

One of the features of the 230-odd First Folio editions known to exist, he said, is the unique flaws each copy contains.

“There are cat print paws over Henry VI,” Fernie enthuses of his Birmingham book.

The Shakespeare Room at the State Library of NSW
The Shakespeare Room at the State Library of NSW. The First Folio is a rare book of immeasurable cultural value, says Maggie Patton, the library’s head of collection, acquisition and curation. Photograph: Joy Lai/State Library of NSW. Photo by Joy Lai

“There are spelling mistakes, there are areas where bits of text are repeated, there are curious markings. There is a 19th-century stamp on it saying ‘free libraries of Birmingham’. I have colleagues who think this is a terrible defacement of a 400-year-old book. My view is that stamp is a sort of second birthmark because it says listen, this is public culture. This belongs to everybody.”

Australia’s First Folio has its own unique defacement.

At the end of Hamlet, the book’s original owner scrawled in a classic 17th-century hand: Elizabeth Windebank Her Book.

Patton said little was known about Elizabeth Windebank.

“It’s something we need to do more work on, but that would require some major research in the UK.”

Prof Ewan Fernie is delivering the free A Tale of Two Folios talk at the State Library of NSW on Thursday 7 December as a guest of the Australian Catholic University. The lecture is the opening address of the three-day Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association conference. The State Library of NSW’s exhibition For All Time: Shakespeare in Print continues until 25 February

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