By Russell Cheyne
A nearly 400-year-old copy of a first edition of William Shakespeare‘s collected plays has been found in a vast aristocratic house on the Isle of Bute, off the western coast of Scotland.
Published in 1623, the First Folio contains Shakespeare‘s 36 plays, including several that had never been published before and might have been lost without it, such as Macbeth, The Tempest and As You Like It.
The discovery at Mount Stuart, grand neo-Gothic home of the Marquesses of Bute, brings the total of known surviving copies of the First Folio in the world to 234. Most others are in libraries and accessible only to scholars.
It is usually a single volume that would have to be read sitting at a desk, but the Bute copy was split in the past for ease of reading into three leather-bound volumes, one each for comedies, histories and tragedies.
“This is something that you could take to the fireside and enjoy,” said Emma Smith, a professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford University who authenticated the Bute Folio.
“It’s a book we most likely now see … in a glass case, and one of the things that this copy … shows us is a time when people just really used this book, they enjoyed it, they scribbled on it, they spilt their wine on it, their pet cats jumped on it.”
Worth an estimated 2 to £2.5m ($2.8 to $3.5m) according to Smith, the Folio is not up for sale and will be on public display at Mount Stuart until October.
It was found in the home’s library, which houses a collection of artworks and artefacts acquired by the Stuart family over the centuries.
“The collection’s managers were in touch to say they thought they had a Shakespeare First Folio, and I must say I thought right, yeah, sure you do. But on much closer inspection they turned out to be right,” said Smith.
Inside the first page is an inscription from an 18th century editor of Shakespeare called Isaac Reed, describing how he acquired the book in 1786. The Folio also includes annotations by Reed that suggest he used it as a working document.
It was authenticated by a variety of methods, including painstaking, word-by-word checks to make sure the well-documented quirks and idiosyncracies of the genuine 1623 First Folio were present.
Britain has been holding commemorations this year to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare‘s death on April 23, 1616.