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Images from the First Folio (left and right) of Shakespeare's plays. One copy of the Folio went to the Bodleian Library straight from the printers in 1623, "hot off the press" so to speak.

The play's the thing, that from Oxford they bring

Shakespeare's First Folio from the Bodleian Libraries of Oxford University makes a historic appearance at National Library.
Mar 17, 2017 5:50 AM

WILLIAM Shakespeare's plays like Macbeth, Twelfth Night, The Tempest - which are so much a part of our Western literary knowledge and tradition - could well have been lost if not for the bard's friends who banded together to get them published in a folio.

Seven years after he died, the First Folio was compiled by his friends and colleagues in the King's Men theatre company - John Heminges and Henry Condell.

Rare and valuable

The First Folio, published in 1623, is the earliest folio of a single author's plays, notes Richard Ovenden, librarian at Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford.

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"It has 36 plays and 18 of them were never printed before. Some of the plays were printed in Shakespeare's lifetime as individual plays, known as 'quartos'," he explains.

"They are exceedingly rare and valuable today. The Folio was a way to reprint these, and then to put into print for the first time those plays that had not been separately published."

There were many publishing houses in Shakespeare's day, almost all of them in London, controlled by the Company of Stationers, a guild.

Mr Ovenden says Shakepeare's friends and colleagues wanted to bring together all of his plays for the sake of posterity, to preserve them, but also do honour to his work, by publishing them in the expensive "Folio" format.

"Altogether, it is an astonishing record of a renaissance dramatist's entire work, an act of homage by his friends to a recently deceased, and much beloved, playwright, actor, and impresario."

One copy of the Folio went to the Bodleian Library straight from the printers in 1623, "hot off the press". "This was donated as part of an arrangement made between the Bodleian and the Company of Stationers, who held the monopoly on printing and publishing in England at the time," he says. Another copy was donated by the family of the great scholar of Shakespeare, Edmund Malone, in 1821.

Shakespeare's First Folio will be exhibited in Singapore's National Library for the first time, in the exhibition titled Shakespeare in Print: The First Folio. The exhibition will showcase Shakespeare's works, life and times, and highlight the significance of the First Folio as a rare literary artifact.

Full digital version

"We hope to spark the interest of Singaporeans and encourage them to learn more about Shakespeare and his works, and at the same time, to appreciate the significance of documenting and preserving literary works," says Georgina Wong, National Library Board assistant curator for exhibitions.

A full digital version of the First Folio will be available at the exhibition for browsing through the 950 folio pages. Researchers believe that 750 or fewer copies of the First Folio were printed and an estimated 230 copies have survived today.

  • Shakespeare in Print: The First Folio will be held from March 11 to April 23 at the Level 10 Gallery of the National Library Building, from 10am-9pm daily. There will be a public talk by Richard Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian, and Rhodri Lewis, Oxford University Professor of the Faculty of English Language & Literature on March 26, from 11am-noon. Admission is free and members of the public can either register at any library e-kiosk or on GoLibrary (