In 1623, seven years after William Shakespeare’s death, the playwright’s friends, collaborators and supporters published William Shakespeare's Comedies Histories and Tragedies, first editions of which are among the most sought-after rare books in existence—only 235 copies of the so-called “First Folio” are known to have survived.
Now, 399 years later, the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada, has acquired a First Folio, which will go on public display at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) from 15 January to 20 March. The newly acquired First Folio will be shown alongside three copies of subsequent editions of Shakespeare’s folio from later in the 17th century.
“As a figure, Shakespeare has always been multiple and hybrid, there’s so much we don’t know about him,” says Anthony Kiendl, the VAG’s director. “And the four folios we’re showing illustrate that—each has a slightly different version of the plays.”
The First Folio is especially significant because it is seen as having been essential in preserving Shakespeare’s work and reputation for ensuing generations. Of the 36 plays it includes, 18—including Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale—had never been published before and might otherwise have been lost forever.
UBC acquired the First Folio via Christie’s from a private collection in the US. The previous time the auction house sold a First Folio, in a public auction in October 2020, it was described as one of only five copies known to still remain in private hands—that copy more than doubled its low estimate to sell for $9.7m (including fees).
UBC, a public university, was able to acquire the present copy thanks to support from a consortium of North American donors and funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage. It now owns the only First Folio on North America’s West Coast outside of California, and just the second in Canada (the other is in Toronto).
The VAG exhibition is being curated by Gregory Mackie, an English professor at UBC and curator of its library’s rare books and special collections, and Katherine Kalsbeek, the head of the UBC library’s rare books and special collections.
In addition to a display of the four folios, the VAG exhibition will feature an animated digital display showing multiple annotated pages of the volumes as well as an augmented reality feature with a Shakespearean figure appearing in the museum atrium on visitors’ smartphone screens. Accompanying audio will feature Christopher Gaze of the Vancouver-based Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival performing passages from the plays.
“We haven’t done an exhibition quite like this before,” says Kiendl. “These digital features are really animating the texts.”
- For All Time: The Shakespeare First Folio, 15 January-20 March, Vancouver Art Gallery, British Columbia