The British Library Folios

The British Library Folios

The British Library has five copies of Shakespeare's First Folio. Of those five, you can browse the three digitised versions.

Red Folio cover with gold border

The portrait on the title page of this copy is one of the four surviving impressions of the engraving in its first state. It was later improved by Droeshout who adjusted some details such as the shading under the chin. Because of the early state of the portrait in this copy, it is possible to deduce that this is one of the first copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio to have been printed. This copy is complete and does not contain any annotations. In the early nineteenth century, this copy was owned by John Delafield Phelps and then by his nephew, James Phelps. It later belonged to James’ brother, William John Phelps, and, after his death, to William Phelps, his son. After that, the volume came in the possession of Captain A. W. Clifford. In 1921, the bookdealers Quaritch purchased it for £4,200. The following year, Charles Edward Barry Young of Kingham, being aware of the engraving’s rare state, offered to acquire this copy for the British Library. Together with Young’s £10,000 and Quaritch’s £250, the Museum’s trustees were able to supply the difference and the volume arrived in the collection in September 1922.

Brown Folio cover with gold border and gold crown and lion insignia in the centre

This First Folio was owned by various important literary and publishing figures. Lewis Theobald, an eighteenth-century editor, is the earliest known owner of this copy. After him, two other distinguished editors came to own this copy: Samuel Johnson and George Steevens. The latter acquired it from the publisher Jacob Tonson who, during the eighteenth century, was also the owner of the copyright to Shakespeare’s works. This copy was finally owned by Charles Burney before the Birtish Museum acquired it together with Burney’s library in 1818. Rasmussen and West explain that “Burney was dismissed from Cambridge for the offence of borrowing volumes from the library at Cambridge, removing the bookplates and inserting his own, then selling the books in London to fund his extravagant lifestyle” (63). A note by Burney’s son summarizes this succession of ownership. This copy is missing Ben Jonson’s ‘To the Reader’ and the original title page. The latter was replaced by two facsimiles: an early photographic reproduction and a drawing by George Steevens.

Scarlet Folio cover with gold border and gold royal insignia in centre

This is one of the five copies currently owned by the British Library. This First Folio was owned by King George III who accumulated over 80,000 books and pamphlets and 440 manuscripts during his reign. The volume was then inherited by his son, George IV, who presented it to the British Museum Library in 1823. The history of this copy before its acquisition by George III is unknown. It is missing Ben Jonson’s poem ‘To the Reader’ and the title page, although the latter has been replaced by a composite leaf made from a mixture of original and facsimile elements. Rasmussen and West also note that most pages are “riddled with holes, resulting in the loss of text on virtually every page” (54). At the end of Henry IV, Part 2, a few pencil drawings can be found: a cannon firing at the word ‘finis’ and some sketches of a man’s head accompanied by the name William Blunt written beneath the drawings.