William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies. London: William and Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries

William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies. London: William and Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries

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William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies. London: William and Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries

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Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies : published according to the true originall copies (known as the First Folio)

Author: William Shakespeare
Ref No: 1623 SHAK
Date Added: 1894
Date Created: 1623

Few would dispute the claim that the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays – commonly known as the First Folio – is the most highly prized book in English literature. Because none of the manuscripts for Shakespeare’s plays has survived, we must rely on the printed texts as our earliest sources. Of the thirty-six plays contained in the First Folio, eighteen (including such masterpieces as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and The Tempest) had not appeared in print before. Others, such as Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, were previously available only in truncated, somewhat garbled versions.

‘Folio’ is a printer’s term, indicating a large-format book, at least fifteen inches (thirty-eight centimetres) tall, made by folding the printed sheets of paper only once (as opposed to quartos, which are folded twice). About a thousand copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio are thought to have been printed. Less than a quarter of these have survived.

At different times Sir George Grey owned two copies. He donated one to Cape Town’s public library in 1863. The other was purchased specifically as a behest to Auckland. Indeed, it was in Grey’s hands for only a brief time. He began negotiations with London bookseller Bernard Quaritch before leaving New Zealand for the last time in March 1894 and finalised the deal on his arrival in England. Although the price asked by Quaritch – £85 – was a not inconsiderable sum in the 1890s, it looks like a great bargain compared with the seven-digit figures that copies have fetched at auctions in the twenty-first century.

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