Shakespeare’s First Folio: from London to the world -and Leeds! Lecture by Professor Emma Smith

Earlier this week I attended a brilliant lecture at the University of Leeds about Shakespeare’s First Folio, the first printed collection of his many works.

2023 marks marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first folio, so an apt time to learn more about it and how it arrived in Leeds’ Special Collections.

Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre.

Guest lecturer Emma is a Professor of Shakespeare Studies and Tutorial Fellow at Hertford College, University of Oxford. She was a great speaker – engaging and funny – and an expert in her field. The lecture covered what the first folio is, why it’s special and how far different editions have travelled.

The folio was published in 1623 by actors John Heminges and Henry Condell. They had been friends of Shakespeare, who had died a few years before in 1616. In his will he had left them mourning rings (a common practice among friends). Emma articulated how the folio wasn’t just about theatre but also friendship.

The beginning of the book includes a message “To the Great Variety of Readers” from Heminges and Condell, which quite bluntly instructs them “But, whatever you do, buy“. I imagine many modern day authors would like to be as direct! Prior to the first folio, it was possible to buy individual Shakespeare plays in Quarto publications. However, the first folio provided an extensive catalogue of Shakespeare’s comedies, histories and tragedies. If this hadn’t been published, many of his most iconic plays would be lost to us including Macbeth and Twelfth Night. It would also mean his surviving works would have been weighted towards his histories, which would have changed our understanding of Shakespeare’s writing.

The first folio today has extraordinary cultural significance today, but not necessarily so in the intervening years. Surviving first folio editions (of which there are estimated to be about 250) include cat prints, a child’s doodles, the names of book owners and some suggested corrections of Shakespeare’s writing! Yet these add to the history of the first folios, and may be the only surviving reference to the individuals whose hands they passed through. Lord Brotherton bought a first folio in 1924, and it came to Leeds when he gifted his extensive literary collection to the university upon his death in 1930.

This lecture was a great introduction to the first folio, and a celebration of it’s important in English literature. You can see if for yourself at the Treasures of the Brotherton gallery where it is on display, but you can also view a digitised version on the University of Leeds Library website here.

You can read about some other fascinating lectures I’ve been to here: Women and Power in the Kingdom of Heaven and Queens: Mothers, Warriors, Icons.

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University of Oxford, Emma Smith:

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust:

University of Leeds Libraries, Lord Brotherton:


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