The Free Library copy of the First Folio has long been known for the extensive handwritten notes and markings made by an early reader. In September 2019, these marginalia made this copy famous worldwide, when two scholars, Claire M.L. Bourne and Jason Scott-Warren, shared their exciting discovery that the dedicated reader was the great seventeenth-century poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost. In this copy of the First Folio, we can watch as one of England’s greatest poets reads another. Milton compares multiple versions of Shakespeare’s texts, annotates words with alternative possibilities, and occasionally notes the sources for Shakespeare’s work. With Bourne and Scott-Warren’s discovery that the annotator was Milton, this copy has become one of the most important First Folios in the world.
Importantly, this copy is held by a public library with a mission to inspire curiosity in all Philadelphians and other patrons. In April 1944, it was given to the Free Library, along with copies of the other three seventeenth-century Shakespeare folios, by the Widener family. A native Philadelphian, Joseph Early Widener had acquired the copy from the great Philadelphia rare book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach, whose legacy lives on at The Rosenbach Museum and Library, now part of the Free Library. (The Widener family actually owned two First Folios. Joseph Widener’s nephew, Harry Elkins Widener, also owned a first folio. Harry Widener and his father died when the Titanic sunk; his mother survived the sinking and donated her son’s rare book collection to Harvard University, where she also founded a library in his name.)