A priceless First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays can now be viewed online, following months of painstaking digitisation work at the University of Leeds.
The book is one of the most important publications in the history of English literature. Although cheap versions of around half of the Bard’s individual plays had previously been produced, the First Folio gathered Shakespeare’s work together in one volume, preserving 18 plays that had not yet been printed.
Martin Butler, Professor of English Renaissance Drama at the university, explained its significance: “Without the folio, we would not have Macbeth or Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra or Coriolanus; we would be missing Twelfth Night and As You Like It.”
He said that without it we would also never have heard of ‘All the world’s a stage’ or ‘If music be the food of love, play on’.
Although 230 copies of the First Folio still exist worldwide, only 40 are in Britain and just two are in Yorkshire.
The university’s copy – which boasts gilt-edged pages bound in goatskin, with gold floral designs on the spine – is in unusually good condition, containing all 900 of its original, fragile leaves. It also features footnotes and comments added by the book’s different owners over the years.
The university’s literary archivist Sarah Prescott said: “The condition of our First Folio, its provenance and annotations – make it quite simply unique.”
The historic work is being made available to all to mark the 450th anniversary of the playwright’s birth today.
The university has a vast collection of rare books and manuscripts, including hand-written copies of works by Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene and the Brontes.
The Tempest is the first play to be displayed in full. The complete digital resource will be launched in May. Go to http://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-shakespeare.