Exhibits and collectors editions mark 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio

This cover image released by Rizzoli shows “Shakespeare's First Folio: 400th Anniversary Facsimile Edition: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, Published According to the Originall Copies." (Rizzoli via AP)

NEW YORK — On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio, rare originals are being displayed and publishers are offering collectors editions of Shakespeare’s plays, including one that sells for $1,500.

Scholars believe that between 200-300 copies still survive from the late 1623 release of “Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories &Tragedies.” Presided over by two friends and former colleagues of Shakespeare, who had died in 1616, the Folio ensured that lasting texts existed for “Macbeth,” “Twelfth Night” and other cornerstones of Western literature. In Shakespeare’s lifetime, many of his works were unpublished or available only in cheap paperback editions.


“Without the First Folio we would have lost a world of words,” Gregory Doran, artistic director emeritus of the Royal Shakespeare Company, writes in the introduction to “The Complete Plays” of Shakespeare, a new publication.

First folios have been on exhibit everywhere from the British Museum to the New York Public Library and at least two major book projects will mark the anniversary.

The British Library is collaborating with Rizzoli Books in New York on “Shakespeare’s First Folio: 400th Anniversary Facsimile Edition,” contained within a slipcase cover. With a list price of $135, the book is 928 pages and includes an introductory booklet co-written by Adrian Edwards, head curator of the British Library’s Printed Heritage Collections.

The most ambitious, and exclusive project, is “The Complete Plays,” a limited edition from the Folio Society, an employee-owned company in London that puts out customized volumes ranging from “Beowulf” to George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. The Society has printed just 1,000 copies of the 3-volume box set, with a list price of $1,500.

Besides Doran’s introduction, the Folio Society release includes a foreword by Dame Judi Dench. Each set is hand-numbered by illustrator Neil Packer.

More than three-quarters of “The Complete Plays” have already sold, according to the publisher.

The First Folio was daring, even audacious for its time, when such publications were “reserved for learned treatises, hefty genealogical texts, books of religious or historiographical importance, or even works by monarchs,” according to Shakespeare scholar Chris Laoutaris.

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