VANCOUVER — The University of British Columbia has acquired a nearly 400-year-old copy of William Shakespeare’s first collection of plays in a single volume, which is known to have preserved 36 of his plays.
Katherine Kalsbeek, head of rare books and special collections at UBC, said the so-called First Folio, titled “William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies,” was bought from a private collector in the United States through Christie’s New York for an undisclosed price.
Kalsbeek said she and Greg Mackie, an associate professor in the English department, worked for seven months to fundraise for the purchase of the complete first edition of the playwright’s works, which was edited by Shakespeare’s friends, fellow writers and actors and published in 1623, seven years after his death.
Plays like “MacBeth,” “Twelfth Night” and “Romeo and Juliet” are part of the collection, which Kalsbeek said was gifted to the university through donations from anonymous people and foundations across North America.
She said 235 copies of the First Folio are believed to exist around the world, mostly in the United Kingdom and the United States, though the University of Toronto has had a copy in its rare collections since the 1970s.
UBC acquired Shakespeare’s Second Folio in 1960, which was published in 1632 and contains the same plays as the first, but with the errors corrected and new ones introduced. The second volume also includes the first published poem by John Milton, who would go on to write “Paradise Lost” in the 1660s.
About 10 copies of the First Folio remain in private hands, Kalsbeek said, adding the one UBC acquired is not in pristine condition and contains a title page from another copy, making it a so-called “sophisticated copy” that is more appealing for teaching and bibliographic research.
She said plans are underway to digitize the portfolio in 3D and to create an augmented reality app so people of all ages beyond the university can engage with the bard’s plays, many for the first time.
“We’ve created a custom cradle that will be used in classes so that the book is presented in a way that supports its spine and supports the binding,” she said of the white oak and Plexiglas holder.
Staff are also learning about the best ways for students to access the treasured book, through procedures gleaned from the University of Toronto and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
The folio will first be exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery, from Jan. 15 to March 22, along with copies of three subsequent folios.
Anthony Kiendl, CEO of the gallery, said one of the collections is on loan from Austin, Texas, and another is from the Legislative Library of British Columbia.
Visitors will have access to interactive material including digital animation, allowing them to flip through the First Folio, he said.
“We’re not showing it because it’s an old book, but because it is as relevant today as ever,” he said of the collection of timeless plays.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press