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The story so far

The story so far

What makes the Durham First Folio so interesting and significant? How did it get to Durham in the first place? And what are we doing to conserve the book? Read on to learn more about the story so far and our exciting plans for the coming year.

The Durham First Folio is unlike any other Folio in the world. From its birth out of single sheets of paper and individual pieces of type to its present condition, the history of our book is unique. Here, we explain what makes it so special and what we are doing to preserve it.

Picture of the title page to William Shakespeare's First Folio with a large engraved portrait of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout
Title page (now lost) from the Durham First Folio with the iconic engraved portrait of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout.

For many scholars, the First Folio is the closest they can get to the words William Shakespeare composed, even though at the time of publication – 1623 – he had been dead seven years. The First Folio was the outcome of a long-running project by his friends and admirers to establish a fitting memorial to him.

It was the first book ever printed in a large format only to contain dramatic works and it emerged in a relatively new market for printed plays. Because of the cost to produce the Folio, the book was not cheap (about £150 in today’s money) and the first owners were among the wealthiest and most politically important people in society.

These days, the First Folio is not particularly rare. Out of an estimated 750 copies that were printed, 235 are known to exist. That includes two copies that were only recently rediscovered in privately owned libraries and the copy owned by Durham University. So why do we celebrate this book and its author?

Without the First Folio, we would have lost 18 of the 36 plays contained within it. For example, that means we would not have the text for The Tempest or Macbeth. Shakespeare has had a lasting impact on the English language as well. We use phrases from these plays perhaps on a daily basis.

The Folio has also become a cultural icon and is symbolic of the impact and adoration of Shakespeare’s works. It has become an object of fascination for collectors and admirers, leading to high-profile auctions, high sale prices, and the kind of emotional veneration often reserved for religious artefacts.

The Durham First Folio also has a personal significance for people in Northeast England. The theft and recovery of the book had a major impact on how it was perceived. Its return is a communal source of pride and serves as a local connection to national heritage.