A copy of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, one of the most sought after books in the world, has been discovered in the library of a stately home on the Isle of Bute. The discovery comes ahead of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on April 23rd, and academics describe it as ‘a rare and significant find’.

The folio had been lying silently for over 100 years in the library of Mount Stuart House, before being authenticated by Professor Emma Smith of Oxford University. Published in 1623, it brings together 36 plays, 18 of which would currently be unknown had it not been for this publication. The folio is responsible for Macbeth, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, as well as being the only source of the familiar dome headed portrait of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout. It is safe to say the folio is a critical piece of English literary history, and that Shakespeare may not have been the familiar, celebrated playwright he is today without its production and survival.

The history of the Bute Island folio is a mystery for 400 years, before it was bought by Isaac Reed in 1786, a library editor working in London in the 18th century. It was sold in 1807 to a ‘JW’ for £38, before falling into the hands of the 3rd Marquess of Bute who purchased it in 1896.

230 copies of an estimated 750 originals are known to exist, with a copy owned by Oxford University selling for £3.5 million in 2003, and another selling in auction for £2.8 million in 2006, making the folio’s value not just cultural.

For anyone seeking to make a profit do not get too excited, as although Professor Smith is sure there a few more out there, she says, “I don’t think they’re in people’s lofts, even though it would be lovely and romantic. I think they are in libraries which have been neglected or forgotten – I suspect more will be in mainland Europe.”

In case you do think you have come across an original folio, authentication involves technical checks of watermarked paper and printing processes. Also look out for the inky thumb prints of Jacobean printers, misspellings and corrections that could have been added after proof reading. However Professor Smith warns there are many fake copies.

The three-volume, goat skin bound book will be on public display at the stately home until October 30th.

Phoebe Williams

Original image: Dan Wright via Flikr. Text added by Jessica Millott.

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