Much ado about…a 400-year-old book?


The Bodleian Library at Oxford University has recently launched a public appeal to raise £20,000 in order to preserve and digitise one of the most famous books in the world. But what is even more interesting than this fundraiser is the story behind the book itself.

The book is the very first edition of Shakespeare’s First Folio, which was bound and published in 1623, just seven years after Shakespeare’s death. The Bodleian Library acquired this edition in 1624, putting it on display for readers to look at. However, it went missing a few decades later: it is believed that in 1664, when the Third Folio (which included even more plays than the First Folio) was purchased by the library, the First Folio was sold as it was no longer thought of as worthwhile.

Then one day, almost 300 years later in 1905, a man walked into the Bodleian Library with a rare book he thought might be of interest to them. The librarian working at the time immediately recognised it as the very first edition of the First Folio, and the library launched an appeal to outbid an interested buyer’s offer of £3000: to put this into context, the Bodleian had never spent more than £200 on a single book before! Thanks to the public, the library raised the funds and successfully reclaimed the First Folio.

Since 1905, the First Folio has sat in a dark room to protect it from further disintegration, while the conservation team have been working on preserving and improving the book as much as they can, without losing its historic charm and authenticity. It is understandably a rare manuscript: not only is it the first time that various Shakespeare plays had been collected into one book, it also included some plays that had never been published individually before, which was the general tradition at the time. This means that, without the First Folio, the public wouldn’t know about The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra, and 13 other plays by England’s most famous playwright.

Now the library want to photograph every page of the book in order to digitise the manuscript, forever preserving it and making it available to the whole world, and to present and future generations. This is a daunting task, as the book may disintegrate as it is exposed to the light of the camera.

Why not introduce this incredible story to your students, and see what they think of the idea of digitising such an old and rare book? The British Library has a fantastic selection of digital resources, including a special section  with 21 Shakespeare Quartos (a quarto is an edition of a single play, whereas a folio is a collection of plays in one book). Students can load up digital images of entire plays as they were first published in the 17th century, as well as exploring some background on the playwright himself and the traditions of printing at the time. There is also a non-Shakespeare section so your students can look at digital versions of books as diverse as Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, Mozart’s musical diary, and a bible from Ethiopia!

We’ve also got a couple of relevant exercises on the Macmillan English Campus. Lower level students could complete the vocabulary activity, Could Shakespeare write? (MVA004444), while you could send your higher level students on a web project, The greatest libraries in the world (MWP006200). Adrian Tennant’s also go a few ideas in his Shakespeare lesson plan on onestopenglish.


Leave a Comment