September 26, 2023


Arts Eternal

Rare 1st edition of Shakespeare’s plays acquired by UBC now on display at Vancouver Art Gallery

The University of British Columbia has added a very valuable book to its library, and you can bet students won’t be writing notes in the margins of this one.

The school has acquired a complete first edition of William Shakespeare’s Comedies Histories and Tragedies  a rare collection of 36 of the famous Bard’s known 38 plays. Also known as the First Folio, the book was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death and is edited by his close friends and fellow writers and actors.

Katherine Kalsbeek, head of rare books and special collections at UBC Library, felt that, with so few copies left in private hands, the library needed to act when the opportunity to acquire one came up in 2021.

“The First Folio is a cornerstone of English literature and with this donation, we are able to bring this cultural treasure into public ownership,” Kalsbeek said in a statement.

WATCH | Learn more about the First Folio acquired by UBC:

Purchased through Christie’s auction house

According to a statement from the university, only 235 copies of the First Folio remain around the world, mostly in the U.K. and U.S. The nine copies in public collections on the West Coast are all in California. 

“This is really a gift, not just to UBC, but also to the City of Vancouver and to the many people in the region who appreciate Shakespeare,” said Kalsbeek. 

UBC purchased the First Folio, formerly owned by a private collector in the U.S., through Christie’s New York with funding provided by a consortium of donors from across North America and with the generous support of the Department of Canadian Heritage.

According to the university, the price tag for its newly-acquired copy cannot be shared as part of the purchase agreement with Christie’s.

An October 2020 statement from Christie’s shows the auction house sold a different copy of the First Folio at that time for just shy of $10 million US.

Copy not in pristine condition

Gregory Mackie, an associate professor in UBC’s department of English language and literatures, said although the price for the First Folio won’t be disclosed, it’s substantially lower than the copy sold at the October 2020 auction.

Mackie told CBC’s On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko that copies that fetch incredibly high prices are typically in pristine condition and often appeal to collectors. The copy UBC purchased isn’t in perfect shape, Mackie added, but that adds to its appeal.

“For us — for universities, for institutions, for scholars and students — books that have been messed with over the centuries are far more interesting. And this one has been messed with in a really, really fascinating way.”

Mackie said one page at the beginning of the book featuring a poem dedicated to Shakespeare was lost.

“It was replaced later on in the 18th century by a leaf from a different book, from a second edition that had belonged to another great writer — to Samuel Johnson, the dictionary maker and editor of Shakespeare,” he said.  

On The Coast8:50UBC acquires rare Shakespeare First Folio

UBC English professor Gregory Mackie shares how the university acquired a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio and why everyone can have a chance to see it. 8:50

Literary fans can view the First Folio on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery from Jan. 12 to March 20.

The work is being shown along with three subsequent 17th-century Folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays, as part of a new exhibit called For All Time – The Shakespeare FIRST FOLIO.

“It’s been inspiring people all across the world in multiple languages, in many cultures for nearly 400 years,” Mackie said.

“It’s one of the most important books ever printed and perhaps arguably one of the most influential books…in English ever printed,” he said.

And it’s also one of those talismanic, magical items that people respond to with awe. I’ve seen it happen. It’s real.”