News | February 8, 2023

Shakespeare First Folio Celebrated in 400th Anniversary Exhibition

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Shakespeare's First Folio, from the Trust's collections

Visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon will have a unique opportunity to delve deeper into the creation of one of the most important books in western literature, Master William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, published in 1623, known as the First Folio at a new exhibition in the playwright’s home.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the national museum for exploring his work, life and legacies has announced a new exhibition and a year of celebration to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio. Without this book, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays would have been lost, including Macbeth, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and Antony and Cleopatra.

“Producing the book was a labour of love and we have his friends and fellow actors to thank for publishing it seven years after Shakespeare died. It was one of the most important and enduring artistic legacies of all time and this is something we are excited to explore in our upcoming exhibition," said Professor Charlotte Scott, Director of Knowledge and Engagement for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

The story of the First Folio begins at New Place, the location of the new exhibition and Shakespeare’s family home from 1597 until his death in 1616. It is the presumed location of where he wrote his will and indeed some of the plays, the significance of which will be explored in the exhibition.

Audiences will have the opportunity to view three key items that organisers say will help visitors dig deeper into the story of the Folio and its enduring legacy. The centerpiece of the exhibition will be an original copy of the First Folio, known as the Ashburnam Folio. It is part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Designated Collection and was acquired by the Trust in the 19th century.

Alongside the First Folio will be a seal ring. Found in a field close to Holy Trinity Church in Stratford and dating from Shakespeare’s time it bears the initials ‘W.S’ and has long been thought to have been worn by the man himself.

“We know that Shakespeare bequeathed money in his will to the men who would go on to publish ‘Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies’, John Heminges and Henry Condell, to buy mourning rings. This could be seen as a personal promise that they would publish his plays in one great volume," said Charlotte.

“The publishing of the First Folio has allowed every generation to explore and re-interpret Shakespeare’s works. The inscription on the title page itself makes reference to "To the Great Variety of Readers" a nod that this book was intended to be accessible to a wide audience and that Shakespeare’s work should be available for everyone to enjoy, not a privileged few.”

Alongside the two key items from Shakespeare’s time will be a notebook of one of his earliest and most devoted fans, which is being publicly exhibited for the first time. Filled with quotations and notes on the plays contained within the Folio it is thought this is the first example of an individual studying Shakespeare’s work in detail and highlighting the Trust’s guiding principles that Shakespeare is for everyone.

A Great Variety of Readers – 400 Years of Shakespeare’s First Folio opens on March 25 at Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon.