Collections of Distinction

Shakespeare Unauthorized: First Folio From London to Copley Square

by jmoschella

The BPL is home to one of the finest collections of Shakespearean rarities in the world. A selection of these books will be on display in the upcoming Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibition at the central library in Copley Square from October 14, 2016 through March 2017. 

In 1623, an unusual book began to appear in the shops of London. In the preface its editors — two aging actors — commended their text to a reading public that had never seen anything like it before. “Whatever you do,” they pleaded, “buy.”

Embedded within their plea was a justifiable note of concern. At over 900 pages and roughly the size of a modern encyclopedia, the book had been printed in an expansive (and expensive) format known as a “folio.” Books of such stature had typically been reserved for important scholarly or religious texts. But here was something altogether different: a collection of stage plays titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies Published According to the True Originall Copies. This, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, is now commonly known as the First Folio. Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, it is widely considered to be one of the foundational books of English literature and culture and fetches enormous sums at auction. In 1623, however, it was an untested commodity that was by no means guaranteed to sell. 


The BPL’s copy of the First Folio (call no. G.174.1 FOLIO) was acquired by the library in 1873

The First Folio was published during an era when stage plays were largely viewed as low-brow forms of public entertainment, unsuitable for consideration as works of refined literature. Those plays that were published were usually printed in ephemeral, pamphlet-like books known as “quartos.” Only one writer — Ben Jonson — had ever published versions of his own plays in a folio.  An accomplished poet and a sophisticated dramatist, Jonson included a small number of them, along with poems and other writings, in a folio published in 1616 called The Workes of Benjamin Jonson. Though the venture was largely successful, his attempt to elevate the status of his plays by printing them in such an exalted format was nevertheless derided by some of his peers. “Pray tell me Ben,” quipped an anonymous commentator, “where doth the mystery lurk? What others call a play, you call a work.”1


The final page of Julius Caesar and the first page of Macbeth in the BPL’s First Folio.

But the First Folio went far beyond even Jonson’s lavish conceit. Published seven years after Shakespeare’s death, it contains 36 of his plays, half of which had never before appeared in print. It thus represents the first editions and earliest surviving texts of eighteen plays, including Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Twelfth NightIf the First Folio hadn’t been produced, it’s entirely possible that many, if not all of these eighteen plays would have been lost.

While the neglect and disappearance of anything written by Shakespeare might seem unthinkable in retrospect, such a phenomenon was by no means uncommon. In fact, only a small fraction of the stage plays performed in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime survive. The remainder, most of which were never printed, simply disappeared in the years following their initial performances. Of the four plays that are generally accepted to have been written or co-written by Shakespeare himself, but not included in the First Folio, only two (Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen) still survive. The other two, Love’s Labors Won and Cardenio are lost, their former existences hinted at in contemporary diaries, printed books, and accounting ledgers.2


Claes Visscher’s panorama shows London, ca. 1616. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, in the seedy Bankside area of Southwark, is visible in the foreground (from a 19th-century facsimile in the BPL Prints Department collection)

Because the First Folio both preserves and elevates Shakespeare’s plays, it is rightly viewed as an enduring monument to his work as a literary author. Heminges and Condell, the two actor/editors of the First Folio, stressed the enduring artistic worth of the plays and took pains to present the body of Shakespeare’s work as something far more valuable than mere fodder for audiences. But while the First Folio helped to preserve and define Shakespeare’s literary legacy, individual copies of the book itself have not always fared as well.

Works, Collected


New editions of Shakespeare’s collected plays (known to modern readers as the second through fourth folios) were issued in 1632, 1663/64, and 1685. With each one, errors and variant readings were introduced, moving the plays ever further from the earliest and most authoritative texts. In 1664, seven more plays were added to the original collection, only one of which (Pericles) is still considered to have been written by Shakespeare.


BPL copy of the third folio (1664) showing the addition of Pericles plus the six apocryphal plays (G176.5 FOLIO)

The growing list of edits, inaccuracies, and corruptions didn’t seem to bother 17th-century readers, who apparently considered each new edition to be an improvement over what had come before. As such, First Folios that would today fetch millions were looked at as obsolete and disposed of accordingly. The Bodleian Library at Oxford, which acquired its copy in 1623, famously sold it off in the 1660s in favor of a newer edition and was unable recover the book until 1905, when it was won back through a high profile, international bidding war.

It was later revealed that the unsuccessful bidder for the Bodleian’s wayward First Folio was an American Oil executive and bibliophile named Henry Clay Folger, who already owned an astounding 23 copies of the book. By the late 19th century, wealthy American collectors like Folger were paying enormous sums for First Folios, the ownership of which had become a symbol of both British national pride and American cultural ascendency. Many of these collectors were titans of industry and finance. Along with Folger, Henry E. Huntington, J. Pierpont Morgan, William Augustus White, Marsden J. Perry, and James Lenox used their fortunes to assemble massive hoards of rare books that contained many of the best and most important surviving copies of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

Lenox himself is often cited as the first major collector of Shakespeare in the United States.3 Such a claim, however, devalues the pathbreaking work of an extremely important, but often overlooked collector: Thomas Pennant Barton, of Philadelphia and New York, whose personal library was acquired by the BPL in 1873. Barton was a discerning, but highly aggressive collector and by the time that Lenox acquired his initial copy of the First Folio in 1855, tin-lined boxes packed with Barton’s book purchases had been criss-crossing the Atlantic for decades. In fact, by 1855, Barton had already assembled the majority of his Shakespeare collection, which eventually included all four folios and 46 pre-1709 quartos — a library of rarities that can hardly be classified as anything less than major.4

Thomas Pennant Barton


Portrait of Thomas Pennant Barton by Etienne Bouchardy. Watercolor on ivory, 1835 (G. Cab. 3.190)

Thomas Pennant Barton by Etienne Bouchardy. Watercolor on ivory, 1835 (G. Cab. 3.190)

Barton (1803-1869) embarked on the lifelong task of building his Shakespeare collection in 1834, while attached to his father-in-law’s diplomatic mission in Paris. At the time of his death in 1869, the Shakespearean portion was rivaled in America only by Lenox. It included all four folio editions; 41 pre-Restoration quartos (37 individual editions with 4 duplicate copies), including 20 printed before the First Folio (nine of which were printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime); all of the major 18th- and 19th-century critical editions; copies of Shakespeare’s sources; and an extraordinary collection of early modern English playbooks, including rare and early editions of Marlowe, Kyd, Middleton, Jonson, Greene, Dekker, and others.

The BPL acquired the entirety of the Barton collection four years after his death. During his lifetime, Barton had expressed a desire for his books to be kept together in perpetuity and his widow, Cora Livingston Barton, saw that desire through. She offered the entire collection to the BPL in 1869 for a price well below its appraised value. In 1873, after years of negotiations (during which Mrs. Barton rebuffed offers from Horace Howard Furness and others to buy parts of the collection) the BPL agreed to the purchase. The transaction was completed in March of the same year and on May 22nd, just two days after the BPL received the final shipment of books, Mrs. Barton died.5 Thomas Pennant and Cora Livingston Barton’s enduring legacy is the BPL’s Shakespeare collection itself, which remains entirely intact and now forms one of the great cultural treasures of the City of Boston.


An image of the Special Library floor in the former BPL building on Boylston St. (demolished in 1899), where the Barton Collection was originally housed.

Boston’s own First Folio


The first box of books that Mrs. Barton shipped to the BPL contained her late husband’s prized First Folio, now BPL call no. G.174.1. Barton had been attempting to buy the book since he first began collecting in 1834. In dispatches to Barton — first in Paris and then New York — his dealers constantly mentioned the “first edition Shakespeare” for which he was hunting. Certain copies reached the market in disastrous condition, while others fetched prices that were out of the question, even for a man of means like Barton. The book dealers Obadiah Rich, Thomas Thorpe, and Thomas Rodd all sought copies for him, though it was Rodd who finally sold Barton his First Folio in 1845 for £110.6


Two letters to Barton regarding copies of the First Folio. In one letter from 1834, Obadiah Rich refers to a copy, in poor condition, which had evaded Barton. In the second letter, from 1846, Thomas Rodd reassures Barton the the copy he had recently sold to him was completely genuine. (From BPL Rare Books Department)

The BPL/Barton First Folio is one of the less well-documented extant copies. The book’s pre-Barton provenance is murky at best. It first appeared on the retail antiquarian book market in Rodd’s 1845 catalog. In a letter to Barton from October of that same year, Rodd described the condition of the folio when he acquired it:

It came to me in old binding, but not the original, and being not only wrongly bound up, but imperfect and all broken, there was positive necessity for its being re-bound. In doing this, however, I was very particular to see that it was not cut, nor any of the ink-marks or old stains removed. All that has been done is to make the book entirely complete.

Rodd’s casual mention, in the last sentence, of making the book “entirely complete” reflects the prevailing sentiment of the time that rare books could be legitimately cobbled together from various incomplete copies — a practice that is heavily frowned on today. Thus, when Rodd, in a later letter (pictured above), assured Barton that every leaf in his First Folio was indeed “genuine” he was simply referring to the fact that none of the leaves were modern facsimiles. The Barton/BPL copy is therefore comprised of pages from at least two, and probably many more copies of the First Folio. Nevertheless, it was then and is still an unusually fine specimen.


BPL’s First Folio before conservation, with first leaf reversed.

Because of its high profile, however, the BPL’s First Folio has seen it’s share of use and, with it, wear and tear. At some point in the early 20th century, the first several pages (including the portrait) were lined with silk — an antiquated conservation treatment that led to further deterioration. The first leaf, which is blank on one side and contains dedicatory verses by Shakespeare’s friend and rival Ben Jonson on the other, was at some point reattached to the book backwards. For years, then, photographs of the BPL First Folio, like the one on the left, showed an unpleasantly mangled book with a blank page next to the iconic portrait of Shakespeare, where Jonson’s verses should have been.

Thanks, however, to the continued support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library, the mis-bound leaf was fixed and numerous other instabilities were resolved in 2015 through a new round of conservation. The silking was removed, unstable 19th-century repairs were replaced, and the first pages were cleaned, mended, and reattached (in the correct orientation). The book was digitized in 2016 and is now freely available online.

See it in Person


Heminges and Condell, the editors of the First Folio, famously described the individual, pre-1623 quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays as, “diverse stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors.” Though Heminges and Condell seem to have been exaggerating (a number of the plays in the First Folio were printed directly from the aforementioned “surreptitious” and “deformed” copies), there does seem to be at least a grain of truth to their claim. Shakespeare’s texts were routinely manipulated during their journey from pen to printing press, and they continued to be manipulated for hundreds of years after his death. In fact, alteration and adaptation — whether surreptitious or not — have always been critical to the story of Shakespeare and his texts. An upcoming exhibition at the BPL will explore some of these stories. Titled Shakespeare Unauthorized, the exhibition will open to the public on October 14, 2016. The BPL’s First through Fourth Folios will be on display, along with six extraordinarily rare quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays printed during his lifetime and many other scarce, unusual, and extremely important books related to Shakespeare and Shakespearean forgery, adaptation, and collecting.

1. This quip appears in an anonymous epigram in Wit’s Recreation (1640).

2. Shakespeare is also widely believed to have contributed to a play called Sir Thomas More, written by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle. The play wasn’t published until the 19th century. It survives in a single manuscript thought by some to contain three pages in Shakespeare’s own hand. An increasing number of scholars also accept the theory that Shakespeare coauthored Edward III and Arden of Faversham.

3. See, for example: Smith, Robert M. “The Formation of Shakespeare Libraries in America” in The Shakespeare Association Bulletin. (Vol. IV, no. 3: July, 1929) p. 66; also Stevens, Henry. Recollections of Mr. James Lenox of New York and the Foundation of his Library (London: Stevens, 1886) 47-50.

4. For a detailed, contemporary discussion of the early Shakespeare collections in America and the Barton and Lenox libraries in particular, see: Winsor, Justin. A Bibliography of the Original Quartos and Folios of Shakespeare with Particular Reference to Copies in America (Boston: Osgood, 1876) 5-20. For a detailed description of Barton’s own collecting, see: Alden, John. “America’s First Shakespeare Collection” in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. (Vol. 58, no. 2: 1964) 169-173.

5. Chase, Frank H. “Thomas Pennant Barton and His Library” More Books/BPL Quarterly, Dec. 1927, 313-320; 21st Annual Report of the Trustees of the BPL, 1873, 80-83; BPL Bulletin (no. 26: Aug. 1873)

6. Barton, Thomas Pennant. Description of a copy of the first folio edition of the plays of William Shakespeare now in the collection of T.P. Barton (New York: Privately printed, 1860).

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