The awkwardly titled Firsts – London’s annual Rare Book Fair is organised by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. The Fair often has something of interest to theatre-lovers and this year there is something very, very interesting indeed – an opportunity to view a copy of the so-called First Folio, printed in 1623 and, arguably, the most important document in the history of theatre.
The First Folio comprises 36 of the plays written by William Shakespeare or in which he is believed to have had a hand excluding only Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost plays, Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won. Half of the plays had been published before the First Folio but not the other 18, including The Tempest, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Measure for Measure.
Of the 750 copies printed almost 400 years ago, only 232 are known to have survived. Most are in libraries and a few in private hands. Many are damaged but one of the best preserved is the copy that will go on display at Firsts. This copy, which is worth somewhere in the region of £2,000,000, is owned by the American playwright and bibliophile John Wolfson who, rather than see his Shakespearean collection broken up, has generously decided to bequeath it to London’s Globe Theatre. The collection will be housed in a new library to be constructed through a major fundraising exercise – ‘Project Prospero’ which the Globe is undertaking with a view to opening the new library in 2023, the quadricentenary of the First Folio’s publication.
As well as the First Folio, John Wolfson will be presenting to the Globe a number of other rare books with a Shakespearean collection, including a first edition of The Two Noble Kinsmen, and other items, including a dagger used in Romeo and Juliet when it was performed at the original Globe.
Seeing the First Folio, one has a sensation that must be something like that felt by Howard Carter when he opened the tomb of Tutankhamun, or – more prosaically – by Indiana Jones as he gazed upon the Ark of the Covenant. It is a large leather-bound volume, folio-size of course, and the print on its 900 odd pages is clear and easy to read. Some of the pages are a little damaged, especially towards the beginning of the volume, and there are also some annotations including the well-known surname ‘Garrick’. It is, as Shakespeare would say, ‘something to behold’ and the knowledge that, without the First Folio, some of his most famous and most-performed plays might have been lost is nothing less than awe-inspiring.
Firsts – London’s annual rare Book Fair takes place at Battersea Evolution in Battersea Park from Friday the 7th of June to Sunday the 9th. It will be opened at noon on the 7th by the actor Stephen Fry. For further details, visit www.firstslondon.com