Shakespeare’s First Folio Online

The book that provided us with many of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays, extant from 1623, is sitting in a battered state in the Bodleian Library.

According to this article in the Guardian, damage including folds in the paper and torn corners, assumed to be the work of careless hands over four centuries, was almost certainly there from the start.

Yesterday, the university library launched a £20,000 appeal fund to digitise the book so that anyone in the world can read its tattered pages, with the backing the director Sir Peter Hall, Dame Vanessa Redgrave, and Jonathan Bate, curator of the Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum, who called it “the most important secular book in the history of the western world”.

The book was sold after the much more attractive Third Folio was printed in 1664, and it passed through history anonymous until 1905 when its owner walked into a bookshop and asked how much it was worth.

To digitise the book, “every page has to be photographed in the highest possible resolution, and the challenge for the conservators is to stabilise the book so that it does not disintegrate in the process – but without destroying any of the historically fascinating damage, or the heroic efforts of one 18th century owner to carry out homemade repairs.”

Conservationists in the Bodleian library have already made many almost invisible repairs with slivers of Japanese paper as fine as surgical stitches, attached with wheat-starch glue, and they have straightened out some folds that were obscuring text. But many more folds in plain paper, or tatters that were not actually about to fall off, were left alone.

The greatest advantage to digitising the text, as pointed out by Sir Peter Hall, is that,

“It will provide an unrivalled opportunity for textual study not only for actors, directors and other theatre practitioners and their academic colleagues, but also for audiences whose love of the plays has remained undiminished over the centuries.”

Scores of copies of the First Folio survive, but the Bodleian’s is unique – the buckled splitting leather is the original binding of the loose leaf pages as they came from the printers in 1623.

Stephen Fry also backed the project whole-heartedly:

“First Folio as a phrase sounds so distant from our everyday lives, but this priceless and extraordinary collection of plays turned the world upside down (or should that be the right way up?) every bit as much as Newton was to do nearly 60 or so years later. The works of Shakespeare, now as much as ever, tell us what it is to be alive. […] To bring the First Folio, the great authoritative publication, to everyone in the world via digitisation is as noble and magnificent a project as can be imagined.”

The First Folio of Shakespeare is the reason we have access to plays such as MacBeth, Julius Caesar, The Twelfth Night and The Tempest.

As described on the BBC news website, the campaign — Sprint for Shakespeare — aims to raise £20,000 to put 1,000 pages of the playwright’s work online. This equates to around £20 per page. Once the project is complete, members of the public will be able to access the website and the plays free of charge, the Bodleian said.

To aid Sprint for Shakespeare, please click here.

Not only will you be credited with helping history, but every contributor “will automatically be entered in a prize draw to win one in an exclusive specially-commissioned limited edition of 12 bespoke hand-press leaves reproducing a page from the original 1623 publication, as created by Dr Paul Nash, an award-winning contemporary print-setter. This is a chance to win a page of literary history while being part of the campaign to bring the Bodleian’s First Folio to 21st century audiences.”

Make history today.

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