Shakespeare's first folio to go on display in Edinburgh

15 September 2023
The National Library of Scotland’s copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio will go on display from 16 September in Edinburgh.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

The National Library’s First Folio display is the final in a series of displays in Scotland as part of the UK and Ireland Folio400 celebrations. It can be found in the ‘Treasures of the National Library of Scotland’ exhibition at George IV Bridge. There are only two other copies of the First Folio in publicly accessible collections in Scotland – held at the University of Glasgow and Mount Stuart Trust.

The First Folio collection

Only 18 of Shakespeare's plays appeared in print during his lifetime, and some of these were in corrupt or pirated editions. The First Folio collection contains 36 plays, 18 of which were published for the first time, thus saving such works as ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Macbeth’ from probable extinction.

The Scottish books are three different folios, in three very different collections, with three different stories to tell.

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The National Library’s Head of Rare Books, Maps and Music, Helen Vincent said: “We’ve seen everyone from schoolchildren to actors to researchers fascinated by the First Folio and the stories it contains, so we’re looking forward to bringing it to a wide audience in our Treasures exhibition. It will be on display for the actual birthday of the book in November – the month it was first offered for sale in 1623. I’m sure the people who put such effort into producing this book would love to know that 400 years later, their dedication to preserving and sharing all of Shakespeare’s plays continues to have such a profound impact on culture in all its forms.”

Professor Adrian Streete, Head of English Literature at the University of Glasgow, said: “Today the First Folio is a literary and cultural monument, as several of those involved in collecting and printing Shakespeare’s plays four hundred years ago hoped it would be. Yet in 1623, the publishing of the First Folio was an expensive and risky undertaking. Shakespeare’s popularity was not then what it would become later.

“The story of how Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies became the ‘First Folio’ is a long and complicated one, bound up with shifting ideas of literary prestige, the theatre, and national identity. But the First Folio remains a monument to the enduring power of literature to help us make sense of ourselves and others, and to imagine new and better worlds.”

About 750 copies of the 1623 First Folio were printed. 235 are known to have survived with 50 copies still in the UK, 149 in USA and 36 in other corners of the world (nine of which are listed as ‘missing’).

The National Library of Scotland’s First Folio will go on display alongside a new selection of items, including:

  • One of the Hyakumantō darani, or the One million pagodas and darani prayers, produced in Japan between 764 and 770.  The earliest evidence of printing comes from 8th-century Japan and Korea, hundreds of years before it was practised in Europe. 
  • Burns’s Tam o’ Shanter, which he wrote in 1790 to accompany the entry for Alloway Kirk in Francis Grose’s ‘Antiquities of Scotland’ (1791). What began as a footnote in Grose’s book became one of Burns’s most popular works and made Tam an icon of Scottish culture. The poem’s dramatic narrative and vivid descriptions of witches and warlocks have inspired generations of artists.
  • The earliest published regional map of ‘Lothian and Linlitquo’ by Joan Blaeu, with Edinburgh coloured in red in the centre. From Scotland’s first atlas presented a flattering, detailed and visually stunning view of the country in 49 maps with accompanying descriptions. 
  • Early works in astronomy. In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus’s (1473–1543) publication, ‘On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’ showed for the first time that the Sun, not the Earth, is the centre of our solar system.

‘Treasures of the National Library of Scotland’ is open Monday to Saturday at George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. Entry is free. For more information, visit the NLS website.