Shakespeare First Folio Confirmed as Genuine

13 April 2016

Today we’re bringing you a highlight from our collection which is truly special; a previously unknown Shakespeare First Folio. Our First Folio has been confirmed as genuine by Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford University, and brings the total of known surviving Folios to 234.  The First Folio is the name given to the collection of William Shakespeare’s 36 plays published in 1623. Without it over half of Shakespeare’s most loved plays, like Macbeth and The Tempest, would have been lost and Shakespeare’s legacy would look very different today.

Professor Smith has also confirmed that our edition of the Folio belonged to Isaac Reed, a well connected literary editor working in London in the 18th Century. Reed (1742 – 1807) was the son of a baker and was initially apprenticed to a solicitor, eventually setting up his own practice as a conveyancer at Staple Inn, Holborn. Reed’s largest work was the Biographia dramatica, published in two volumes in 1782, which was a biographical work on dramatists and a descriptive compendium of their plays. Reed re-edited Samuel Johnson and George Steevens’s edition (1773) of Shakespeare which was ultimately published in ten volumes in 1785.

‘This is an exciting discovery because we didn’t know it existed and it was owned by someone who edited Shakespeare in the 18th Century,’ said Professor Smith.

Our edition is unusual because it was bound in three volumes with many blank pages which would have been used for illustrations. The Folio also includes annotations and notes from Reed which indicate its significance as a working document that went towards creating the Shakespeare we know and love.

Shakespeare First Folio from Bute Collection

A letter from Reed shows that he acquired the Folio in 1786 and further records indicate it was sold after Reed’s death in 1807 to a ‘JW’ for £38 – an absolute bargain! After this sale there are no public records of the Folio and it wasn’t included in Sidney Lee’s 1906 census of First Folios. It was at some point between these two dates that Mount Stuart acquired the Folio because it is mentioned in a catalogue of the Bute library in 1896. A note in the archives suggests the 3rd Marquess thought the asking price ‘too dear’ in 1807 when the Folio was up for sale so perhaps it came back on the market for a more reasonable price later in the 19th Century. The Reed-Bute Folio was rebound in goatskin in 1932 to match the other three Bute Folios.

Our Collections Team are working with academics from several Universities across the UK to explore the collection and bring their significance to the wider public. Head of Collections, Alice said ‘In terms of literary discoveries, they do not come much bigger than a new First Folio, and we are really excited that this has happened on Bute. But it is just the tip of the iceberg for the undiscovered material in the remarkable Bute Collection, and we are working with scholars from universities including Glasgow, Dundee, Stirling and Oxford to share our collections with schoolchildren in Scotland and with the public.’ Hopefully, this is just the first of many amazing discoveries from the Bute Collection.

This discovery will form the focal point for our new education programme to engage young people on Bute with their place in Mount Stuart’s history.  Alice has said ‘We want young people on Bute to feel an ownership over the House and its collections, we want to play our part in educating young people in the west of Scotland and by organising school visits to see the Folio, we are beginning that process.’

Emma Smith has recently published Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book with Oxford University Press investigating the events leading up to the publication of the First Folio, seven years after Shakespeare’s death.

This book aims to widen the legacy of Shakespeare to include those who printed, edited and read the book in 1623 and who truly contributed to Shakespeare’s rightful place in literary history. Emma said ‘when we think of Shakespeare we usually think of his plays being performed on stage. But the written word and the First Folio is central to our understanding of Shakespeare.’

The Folio will be on display for the first time at Mount Stuart from today as part of an exhibition that will run until 30th October 2016. The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 23rd April 1616 will be marked throughout 2016.