Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio — a rare 1685 edition of plays by the acknowledged king of English literature — has become a treasured addition to Western Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections and a boon to students and researchers.
Western is believed to be one of only two universities in Canada (McGill is the other) to have a copy of the prized volume, a recent gift to the university from London physician Robert Luton.
The volume of 43 plays should be viewed as much more than an enhanced reprint of three previous collected works, said Shakespeare scholar James Purkis, an associate professor of English at Western: “The Fourth Folio is a gem in itself,” Purkis said. “The active revision that took place in this text — regularization of character names and even slight revisions to the dialogue — became the foundation for virtually all Shakespearean editions for a couple of hundred years.”
On Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, lovers of literature and rare books will have an opportunity to view the prized volume when it makes its public debut as part of Wordsfest London at Museum London. Prof. M.J. Kidnie, the Graham and Gail Wright Distinguished Scholar at Western University and a Shakespeare expert, will speak about the Folio’s importance on Nov. 4 at 5 p.m.
Folios are large and hefty volumes (this one runs to more than 900 pages, each page almost 40 centimeters long), a size intended to reflect the prestige of their literary content. During Shakespeare’s time, plays were considered low-brow entertainment — barely worthy of being collected into smaller books, much less elevated into folio treatment. Only after Shakespeare’s death were his collected works printed into folios, works that are valued even more highly today.
University archivist Robin Keirstead described this volume as being in “very, very good condition … It’s not only a wonderful early piece but it adds significantly to our rare book holdings. It allows students and faculty an opportunity to study the content and examine carefully an original printing. There’s nothing like having access to the original.”
Luton was captivated by Shakespeare’s works in elementary and high school when he attended plays at the Stratford Festival Theatre. As an adult, his frequent travels to Europe and the US with the London Opera Guild whetted his appetite for live drama and antique manuscripts and scores.
“After years of cherishing a Fourth Folio, I felt that Western students might now be inspired as I was to learn about such a literary giant! Shakespeare is as relevant today as he was then,” Luton said.
Fast facts about Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio:
- Published in 1685; includes 43 plays (six of which are now considered to be other playwrights’ works).
- Published by Bentley, E. Brewster, R. Chiswell, and H. Herringma, it became the basis of 18th-century editions of Shakespeare’s plays
- Its full title is a long one (note omitted final ‘e’ in Shakespeare’s name): William Shakespear’s Comedies, histories and tragedies. Published according to the true Original Copies. Unto which is added SEVEN PLAYS, never before Printed in Folio: viz. Pericles Prince of Tyre, The London prodigal, The history of Thomas Lord Cromwel, Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, The Puritan widow, A Yorkshire tragedy, The tragedy of Locrine. The Fourth Edition. London, printed for H. Herringman, and R. Bentley, 1685.
- A volume donated recently to Western Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections by Dr. Robert Luton is available (upon request, with advance notice), for researchers to view.
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