The book that gave us Shakespeare

A new exhibition in the Library of Trinity College Dublin celebrates 400 years of Shakespeare’s plays in print. Curator Andy Murphy, Professor of English, Trinity, explains the First Folio’s history

Many Irish people will have encountered Shakespeare for the first time through studying plays such as Julius Caesar and Macbeth in secondary school. But what if these plays had never been published? Some, who struggled with the texts as schoolchildren, might feel cheered at the thought, but the loss to global culture would be immense. And yet these plays could well have been lost to us -- together with others, such as Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors and The Winter’s Tale -- because, at the point when Shakespeare died, in 1616, half of his plays had never been brought to print.

The fact that the plays have survived is the result of a project undertaken by Shakespeare’s fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, who, on behalf of Shakespeare’s theatre company, the King’s Men, collaborated with a group of London publishers to produce the first ever collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, gathering as many plays as possible into the volume, including those that had not yet seen the light of day in print.

The volume they produced is now known as the ‘First Folio’. ‘Folio’ because of the size -- the folio format was the largest standard book size of the time -- and ‘First’ because three further folio editions were issued over the course of the seventeenth century. Previously, for the most part, the folio format had been reserved for prestige publications, and certainly Heminges and Condell intended the volume as a kind of monument to their dead colleague’s memory. But the book also needed to be big, to accommodate the great number of texts it contained.

Publishing the Folio was a costly undertaking, so the volume when it appeared was expensive. A bound copy likely cost around £1. It is impossible to come up with a precise modern equivalent for this sum but, working on the basis of how long it would have taken a London workman to earn that amount of money and translating that into modern terms, we can say that it likely equates to around about €1,000. So: a book, essentially, for the wealthy rather than for the common reader.


Somewhere in the region of 750 copies of the book were printed and a surprising number of them still survive -- a little over 230 in fact. The greatest number of these -- around 80 copies -- are now held in the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, gathered there by the obsessive American collectors Emily and Henry Clay Folger.

We know that in the years following its publication a number of copies of the book came into Irish ownership. A portrait of Thomas Sheridan, the great eighteenth-century Irish actor who performed at and managed Smock Alley theatre, shows him leaning on a large volume of Shakespeare’s plays, possibly a copy of the First Folio. We also know that James Caulfeild, the first Earl of Charlemont, owned a copy which he kept at his Dublin city residence, Charlemont House -- now the Hugh Lane Gallery on Parnell Square. The Caulfeild copy was sold at Sothebys in 1865 and it narrowly escaped being destroyed in a disastrous fire at Sothebys’ warehouse at the time.

Only one copy of the Folio is still held in Ireland -- as part of the collection of the Library of Trinity College Dublin. This volume is the centrepiece of a new exhibition in the Library of Trinity College Dublin entitled ‘Shakespeare the Irishman’ (an online version is available here). To mark the 400th anniversary the much-sought after book has also been digitised and it is now freely available to the public to explore via Virtual Trinity Library.

Trinity bought its copy of the First Folio at the auction of the library of the late Arthur Browne. Browne had Trinity connections and has an interesting back story. He was born in Rhode Island to a family with strong Irish connections -- both his grandfather and his father had attended Trinity. His grandfather served for a spell as secretary to Jonathan Swift and he emigrated to New England as a clergyman at the urging of George Berkeley. Browne’s father was also a minister in New England and he was one of the founders of Rhode Island College -- now Brown University.

Arthur Browne himself ventured across the Atlantic in 1772, at the age of 16, to take up a place at Trinity. He excelled as a student and became a distinguished lawyer. He was a Senior Fellow at Trinity and served terms both as Professor of Law and Professor of Greek -- he was a man of many talents. He also served as MP for Trinity in the Irish parliament, from 1783 until the parliament was abolished following the passing of the Act of Union.

Trinity’s copy of the First Folio is far from pristine, which is actually what makes it interesting. In the book we can trace its history as a living domestic object. We find drink stains on some of the pages and evidence of a candle’s having been dropped onto an open page, necessitating careful repairs, but with the scorch marks still visible. We even find a paw print, with a cat or dog having walked across the text of Henry V. Most curious of all, we find a set of unintelligible inscriptions, possibly in an early form of shorthand.

The First Folio is one of the jewels in the crown of the Library’s collection and the 400th anniversary of the publication of the volume provides a very welcome opportunity to put the volume on display as part of the global celebrations of Shakespeare’s great book (under the auspices of Trinity’s new research initiative, the Centre for the Book). Just don’t tell those generations of frustrated schoolchildren that they could have been spared the effort of reading Macbeth if the volume had never appeared . . . .

‘Shakespeare the Irishman’ exhibition in the Long Room of the Old Library, Trinity runs from April 14th until the end of June. The online exhibition is available to view here. Trinity’s copy of First Folio has been digitised and is now freely available to the public online via Virtual Trinity Library.