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400 years of genius: anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio celebrated at University of London


To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, the University of London is hosting a series of events, including a new exhibition, Shakespeare's First Folios: A 400-year journey.

The exhibition at Senate House Library, which runs from 21 November 2023 until 29 February 2024, traces the extraordinary 400-year journey of the First Folio, including how it was re-issued and published in different formats, and how the book became prized by collectors, including Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence and Sir Louis Sterling, whose First Folios are now treasures of the Library’s collections.

Published in 1623, Shakespeare’s First Folio brought together many of the Bard’s plays in one book, including several such Macbeth, As You Like It, Julius Ceasar and The Tempest, which had never appeared in print.

Senate House Library, part of The University of London, possesses two copies of the rare Folio: the Durning-Lawrence Library copy and the Sterling Library copy. One of these will also be on display on selected dates between 21 November and 29 February 2024.

As part of the First Folio celebrations, and to make them more accessible, both versions have been digitised and are available online. This allows readers to explore the beautiful texts in more detail and gain a better understanding of their history and influence. View the images in the Durning-Lawrence Library and also the folio of images in the Sterling Library.

Senate House Library has also organised a series of curator-led exhibition tours celebrating the anniversary. Guests can discover more about the Library's two copies, and the history of this iconic book. The tours will include an opportunity to see one of the First Folios on display.

Specialist staff from across SAS libraries have also published a series of blogs about Shakespeare and his impact on their collections.

On 23rd November, Professor Roland Greene, Director of the Stanford University Humanities Center, delivered an inaugural lecture, addressing the topic of ‘Shakespeare’s First Folio and its World’. The lecture considered the First Folio as an event, not only in its immediate national context but from outside England and considering its influence over the long term.

Dr Michael Durrant, Lecturer in Book History at The Institute of English Studies, said:

The publication of the First Folio in 1623 helped to solidify Shakespeare’s place at the very centre of the English literary canon; however, the story of the First Folio is not just one of the individual genius, but also of collaboration. We owe a debt to those early printers, publishers, and booksellers who invested in, manufactured, and distributed the First Folio, as well as former owners who subsequent passed copies of that text down to us.

Of course, that rich history of collaboration continues today, with archivists, librarians, and academics from the University of London coming together to digitise our copies of the First Folio, ensuring that these iconic books survive to shape the collaborative endeavours of future generations.