Philly First Folios

The Lehigh University copy of the First Folio is a good illustration of how much work has gone into “completing” or “perfecting” copies of this famous book over the centuries. There are almost no copies of the First Folio that resemble very closely their original appearance in the London bookshops in 1623. In the Lehigh copy, many of the preliminary pages are actually from the Second Folio, since the copy had lost its original pages. (The first and last pages of any book are much more subject to damage.) The title page is original except that, at some point, the engraved portrait was lost – probably cut out to supplement another copy. In its place, a version of the portrait from the Fourth Folio (1685) has been inserted. This portrait was printed from the same copper engraving plate that had been used since 1623. Through detailed examination, scholars can distinguish between the different moments in the history of the copper plate and have determined that it went through four distinct states. When it came time to print the Fourth Folio, the plate was retouched to add and reinforce some lines on Shakespeare’s forehead and cheeks. All of this work to create a “complete” version of the preliminaries was probably done in the nineteenth century, when the copy was in the hands of William Brice of Bristol, England.

At the Sotheby’s sale of Brice’s library in 1887, the copy was bought by the London bookselling firm Henry Sotheran Ltd (still in business) and resold immmediately to the New Jersey collector George Byrne, which is how the copy came to the United States. Still in that same year, Byrne died and his First Folio was purchased for $685 by Lehigh, which was rapidly expanding its library in the years after its founding in 1865. In the 1880s and 1890s, Lehigh also acquired copies of the Second, Third, and Fourth Folios, becoming one of only about fifty-five institutions worldwide to hold all four editions. (Among the Philly First Folio institutions, the Free Library, Haverford, Penn, and West Chester can also claim this honor, while Bryn Mawr lacks a copy of the Third Folio.)

For more information about this copy, you can consult the library catalogue record here and its entry in the Shakespeare Census here.