Gift adds Bard’s Fourth Folio to collection

Even in elementary school, Robert Luton loved Shakespeare. The storytelling, the drama, the beauty of the language – it all kept him in rapt attention during performances at the Stratford Festival Theatre.

English teachers cultivated his passion for plays and, as an adult, Luton fed that avocation during his travels with the London Opera Guild to Europe and the United States.

“I developed an interest in visiting libraries to view antique manuscripts and scores,” he said. A little more than a decade ago, he combined his love of Shakespeare and antique books by acquiring, from a book collector, a prized copy of Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio.

That rare 1685 edition of plays by the king of English literature has now become Luton’s gift to Western Archives – a treasured addition to the rare books collection and a boon to students and researchers alike.

Luton, now a physician practising family medicine in London, emphasizes he is not the story – the plays are the thing.

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“After years of cherishing a Fourth Folio, I felt Western students might now be inspired as I was to learn about such a literary giant. Shakespeare is as relevant today as he was then,” Luton said.

Western is believed to be one of only two universities in the country to have a copy of the prized volume. (McGill is the other).

The volume of 43 plays should not be viewed as just an enhanced reprint of previous collations, said English professor James Purkis, a Shakespeare scholar. “The Fourth Folio is a gem in itself. The active revision that took place in this text – regularization of character names, and even slightly revising the dialogue – became the foundation for virtually all Shakespearean editions for a couple of hundred years.”

On Saturday, lovers of literature and old books will have a rare opportunity to view Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio when it makes its public debut as part of WordsFest London at Museum London. M.J. Kidnie, the Graham and Gail Wright Distinguished Scholar at Western and an expert on Shakespeare, will give a talk about the importance of the Folio.

Folios are hefty volumes, a size intended to reflect the importance of the literary content within. The tome donated to Western runs more than 900 pages, with each page almost 40 centimetres long. During Shakespeare’s time, plays were considered low-brow entertainment – barely worthy of being collected to smaller books, much less elevated into folio treatment. Only after Shakespeare’s death were his collected works printed in prestigious folios, works that are valued even more today.

University Archivist Robin Keirstead described this volume as being in “very, very good condition. It’s not only a wonderful early piece but it adds significantly to our rare-book holdings. It allows students and faculty an opportunity to study the content and examine carefully an original printing. There’s nothing like having access to the original.”

This folio includes seven plays not included in the first printing of the Third Folio, Purkis said, although just one of those, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is widely accepted as having been penned by Shakespeare.

He said one intriguing aspect of the Folios is that corrections took place even while the presses were running. They would see an error, stop the presses, fix the error and continue on with the effect that most volumes have a mix of corrected and uncorrected sheets.

“It’s quite possibly, even probably, unique,” Purkis said.

Readers will notice in this Folio, for example, that no one caught the transposed ‘P’ and ‘R’ in The Tragedy of Hamlet; RPINCE of DENMARK.

Housed in secure, climate-controlled facilities, the volume is available to researchers to view upon request, with sufficient notification, Keirstead said.

THE BOOK’S THE THING

Fast facts about Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio:

  • Published in 1685; includes 43 plays (six of which are now considered to be other playwrights’ works);
  • Published by R. Bentley, E. Brewster, R. Chiswell, and H. Herringman, it became the basis of 18th-Century editions of Shakespeare’s plays;
  • Its full title is a long one (note omitted final ‘e’ in Shakespeare’s name): William Shakespear’s Comedies, histories and tragedies. Published according to the true Original Copies. Unto which is added SEVEN PLAYS, never before Printed in Folio: viz. Pericles Prince of Tyre, The London prodigal, The history of Thomas Lord Cromwel, Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, The Puritan widow, A Yorkshire tragedy, The tragedy of Locrine. The Fourth Edition. London, printed for H. Herringman, and R. Bentley, 1685.