Tag Archives: First Folio

Digitising Shakespeare’s First Folio at King’s College

In my role as photographer at Cambridge University Library’s Digital Content Unit (DCU), I am fortunate to encounter fascinating and unique material. Digitising the library’s vast collections means that I have handled an early biblical palimpsest, illuminated Persian manuscripts, Japanese painted scrolls, and even a 4000 years old Sumerian clay tablet. That is the nature of the work itself: the ever-changing challenge of utilising high-tech photography to create a digital record of wide-ranging pieces of humanity’s endeavours.

Mid-summer 2022, however, I was given an unusual assignment. King’s College’s precious copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio needed to be digitised. Although King’s is in sight of the University Library, bringing this invaluable volume to the DCU studio for imaging was not an option. It was decided that I would set up a mobile studio in the college library to photograph the First Folio over a two-week period.

Entrance of King’s College Library in Webb’s Court

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (also known as ‘the First Folio’) hardly needs any introduction, especially during the year in which we celebrate the quatercentenary of its publication. Gathering 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, it was published in 1623, seven years after the playwright‘s death. Its literary significance cannot be overstated. Notably, as some original manuscripts were lost over the centuries, the Folio constitutes the earliest record for 18 plays, including some of Shakespeare’s most famous works such as Macbeth and The Tempest. Out of the 235 known First Folio copies disseminated around the world, four are held by Cambridge University institutions, including the one in King’s College. The green leather-bound volume with gold embossing is only slightly taller than an A4 sheet of paper. An engraving of the Bard’s likeness adorns the frontispiece, followed by over 900 pages of text. As Dr James Clements, College Librarian, remarked, it was striking to think that I would be the first person to look closely at (and turn) every single page of the book in many decades, or perhaps a few hundred years.

Close-up of the First Folio frontispiece portrait of William Shakespeare engraved by Martin Droeshout.

One September morning, my colleague Gordon McMillan drove me and a van load of photography equipment across the river. With the assistance of another peer, Błażej Mikuła, I took possession of the space which would become my office for the coming weeks. It was a seminar room on the second floor of the library. The octagonal space was entirely lined with glass-fronted cabinets packed full of rare books. To install my mobile digitisation studio, I moved chairs to the sides and I used the large, solid-wood round table as a sturdy base on which to place a traveller’s book cradle. This device provides extensive support for fragile and precious bound items. Nestled between the cradle’s boards, the book is mostly held down by gravity and a weighted string (known as a snake) keeps it open in the right place. A clear acrylic sheet propped up by foam blocks ensured that the targeted page stayed flat, while minimising the pressure on this historic binding. It is important that the item being captured sits parallel to the camera in order to produce a non-distorted image.

Camera setup in the seminar room. The PhaseOne camera is on a tripod looking over the traveller’s book cradle, on which rests the First Folio, with flash lights on both sides.

The high-resolution camera (a 100-megapixel PhaseOne digital back with a 120mm prime lens) was mounted onto a heavy-duty tripod and the spot for the tripod’s legs was marked on the rug with black tape. The two Broncolor flash lights flanking the camera, equipped with soft boxes, received the same treatment. I tied laptop tethering and all power cables together and out of the way so that they would not constitute a trip hazard. It was crucial to prevent setup disturbances throughout the imaging process to guarantee a consistency of imaging. While this is easier to achieve in a traditional photography studio where lights and book cradles are fixed, replicating it from scratch in a room which has not been designed for it requires a whole lot more effort.

The imaging started with exposure and colour calibration. I tested the positioning of my flash lights, as well as potential reflections. This highlighted the need to cover the camera brand name and other elements which were reflecting in the acrylic sheet. The angle of the lights was adjusted to account for the fact that this traveller’s book cradle sits in the opposite direction to what its larger relatives would in a photography studio. These light and colour parameters remained unchanged during the entire digitisation process. A meticulous workflow results in extremely accurate and detailed digital reproduction. Images do not need to be retouched through post-processing software. A frustrating side effect was that I also had to limit stray light by closing the window shutters while photographing, thus depriving me of the delightful views of Webb’s Court!

The first page of ‘The Tragedie of Romeo and Iuliet’ on my laptop screen during the digitisation. The white snake is visible on the left of the image, outside the cropped area which will constitute the final image.

A close-up photo of the title page decorated by an ornate head-piece.










Regularly checking that the image was in focus, I photographed the front cover first, followed by the rectos of each page, interleaving them with a black background. Once all the rectos were imaged, I flipped the book over and repeated the process, capturing the versos including the back cover. Before I knew it I came across the words uttered by Hamlet ‘To be or not to be…’. It was hard not to read every famous passage of these seminal plays. Finally, the spine and gilt top and bottom edges were recorded, therefore creating a complete digital copy of the volume. Importantly, I double (and triple) checked the hundreds of files before dismantling the mobile studio, as indeed, the exact photography conditions would all be near impossible to reproduce once they were taken apart.

The First Folio book spine as seen through the camera viewfinder. ‘Shakespeare – 1623’ is embossed in gold.

The beauty of King’s College and its various locations is something I found myself constantly in awe of during the fortnight I spent there. Whether it was a river Cam view from a library window, the beautiful display of modern paintings on the south wall of the dining hall (talk about a backdrop for fish and chips on Friday), or, of course, the glorious fan vaulting of the college’s chapel ceiling, it remains one of the greatest aspects of my job. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention another undoubtable highlight of my mission: meeting the staff of King’s College Library. I was very appreciative of all of them for making me feel welcome, inviting me to join their tea breaks and lunches, and for telling me about their work. I was particularly grateful to James Clements for all his help and kindness. His behind-the-scenes tour of the library was fascinating, and I was touched that he took time out of his busy schedule to show me around.

King’s College Chapel, a fifteenth-century wonder basking in late afternoon light.

Friday fish and chips in the college nineteenth-century gothic revival dining hall.

The King’s College First Folio is fully digitised and accessible online on this link.

Amélie Deblauwe

Celebrating “Folio Day”

Today marks the 407th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and, by tradition, the 459th of his birth. This day has also been designated as “Folio Day” and begins a season of celebratory events taking place around the world to commemorate the quatercentenary of the publication of the First Folio on 8th November 1623. Various libraries and other institutions will have their First Folios on display during this time, and King’s College Library will also be taking part in the commemorations by exhibiting the First, Second and Fourth Folios as part of Open Cambridge on Friday 8th September 2023 from 10.30am to 4.00pm. Save the date!

As it’s Folio Day, we thought it would be appropriate to provide some details about our volume and its provenance. King’s College’s First Folio is one of only 235 extant copies, most of which have been described in detail in Rasmussen and West’s The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue. Our copy has recently been digitised and can be viewed in its entirety on the Cambridge University Digital Library website (a post about the digitisation process will follow in due course).

One of the most distinctive features of the book is the engraved title-page portrait of Shakespeare, which exists in two states: the earlier has lighter shading, while in the later state the shading is heavier, especially around the collar; there are also minor differences in the jawline and moustache. According to Rasmussen and West, the texture of the portrait suggests that the King’s College copy is an engraved facsimile copied from a state 2 original:

Title page of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (London: printed by Isaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount, 1623; Thackeray.38.D.2).

Spot the difference: the original state 2 portrait in the Bodleian Library’s First Folio (Arch. G c.7) (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

As well as missing the original portrait, our copy also lacks the seven preliminary leaves containing the dedication, various celebratory verses by the likes of Ben Jonson, the list of actors and the table of contents. As is sometimes the case with rare books, the last two leaves are also wanting, though in this copy these have been supplied in manuscript so skilfully that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were the original:

Leaf 3b6r in the King’s First Folio supplied in facsimile.

Leaf 3b6r in the Bodleian First Folio (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

As for its provenance, the First Folio is part of the collection of rare books bequeathed to the college by George Thackeray, who was Provost at King’s from 1814 to his death in 1850. In Shakespearean fashion, tragedy is said to have been at the heart of his love of books. Following the death of his first wife, Thackeray married his second wife Mary Ann Cottin in 1816. Two years later, on 13 February 1818, she was in labour with their first child, and the accoucheur in attendance, Sir Richard Croft (1762-1818), started showing signs of anxiety and distress and was therefore persuaded to lie down and rest in another room. At about 2am, Croft shot himself in the head with two pistols Thackeray was keeping for personal protection. A volume of Shakespeare was found lying on the dressing table, open at a page containing the line in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “Where is the Princess?”:

Act V, scene ii from Love’s Labour’s Lost as it appears in the First Folio, with the phrase “Wher’s the Princesse?” highlighted in the second column.

Mary Ann’s labour may have shown similarities to that of Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796-1817), who had died in childbirth the previous year; she was also attended by Sir Richard Croft. As pointed out by Jane Townley Pryme and Alicia Bayne, “It was supposed that he had never quite recovered from the shock occasioned by the Royal death, and that the anxiety of this case, combining with the coincidence of the passage in the play, which he had probably been reading, gave an impulse which he could not resist” (Memorials of the Thackeray Family, London, 1879, pp. 238-39).

Thackeray’s obituarist wrote that “this sad event threw an air of gloom and desolation about his house from which it never altogether recovered”. According to him, this early tragedy “threw him, for his general companionship, upon Erasmus and Propertius, black-letter Bibles, and odd books generally”. When he died in 1850, he bequeathed his black-letter books to King’s. His daughter, Mary Ann Elizabeth, lived into adulthood and left the rest of her father’s collection (including the First Folio), to the College when she died in 1879.

William Makepeace Thackeray, photographed here by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst, was a frequent visitor at the house of his second cousin Mary Ann. Another literary curiosity is that her unhappy love affair with Henry Kemble served as the plot for Henry James’s novel Washington Square (1880).

Our copy of the First Folio has a fascinating literary connection. George Thackeray, a cousin of William Makepeace Thackeray’s father Richmond Thackeray, was the novelist’s first cousin once removed. “After her father’s death Mary Ann Thackeray and her aunt lived in considerable state in London, where [William Makepeace] Thackeray was a frequent visitor to their home at 27 Portman Square” (The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, ed. Gordon N. Ray [London: Oxford University Press, 1945], vol. 1, p. 30, n. 11). It is therefore likely that William Makepeace Thackeray will have seen and consulted this copy of the First Folio at Mary Ann’s house.

More Shakespeare-related blog posts will follow in the course of this year, so watch this space!


Shakespeare in Love: or, A Rose by any other Name.

Roses are red,

Violets are blue.

We all love Shakespeare,

And hope you do too!

Well, it is not for us to tell you what to think, but we can probably all agree that Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, and what better Shakespeare play to consider on Saint Valentine’s day than Romeo and Juliet! But what is it? A love story? Love certainly appears to be one of the main themes. A comedy? It’s definitely full of humour. A history? Certainly the Romeo and Juliet story in various forms predates Shakespeare. Or (spoiler alert) a tragedy? Best not give away the end, although Shakespeare does right at the start of the play in the prologue, so I’m not sure why we’re worried!

Title page of Shakespeare, The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie, of Romeo and Iuliet (London: John Smethwicke, [1622]). (Shelfmark: Keynes.C.6.4).

In King’s Library we are lucky enough to have two early sources for this well-known play. The first is a quarto edition published in 1622 by John Smethwicke in London. The play is thought to have been written in the 1590s, and certainly performed by 1597 when the first quarto edition was published. Sometimes known as the ‘bad quarto’, that edition is considered to be an unreliable source, but a more reliable quarto edition (the second quarto) appeared in 1599. It was reprinted in 1609 (the third quarto) and our 1622 fourth quarto is mainly based on that.

Title page of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (London: Jaggard and Blount, 1623).

The second source we have for Romeo and Juliet is the First Folio edition of 1623, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays without which about half of his dramatic output would be unknown to us today because only about half of his plays had previously been published. We have recently digitised our copy of the First Folio and it will be available to consult online very soon because, like many other institutions, King’s Library is marking the 400th anniversary of the printing of the First Folio in 1623 (see https://folio400.com/) throughout this year.

The famous prologue (with all the spoilers!) appears in the 1622 edition, but not in the First Folio:

Prologue from the 1622 quarto edition.

Opening of Romeo and Juliet in the First Folio.










Here we see two of the famous moments in the play, the first when Romeo and Juliet first meet at the Capulets’ House, and the second, that iconic balcony scene:

Romeo and Juliet’s first conversation: “Let lips doe what hands doe”, from the 1622 quarto edition.

The balcony scene: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” in the First Folio.










As you might expect, there are significant differences in typography, spelling and punctuation between the two editions, and it is interesting to see them here by comparing the final two pages of each:

Final page of the 1622 quarto edtion, with an ink inscription “Remember mee when this you see when I am gon away from thee John Shute 1674”.

Final page of the play in the First Folio.










Whether you’re observing Saint Valentine’s day today or not, you could do worse than spending a little time reading some Shakespeare, and we hope you have an enjoyable day whatever you’re doing!


The digitisation of the King’s copy of the First Folio was made possible thanks to a donation from Fanny Greber in memory of her husband, Lloyd D. Raines (KC 1972).


Shakespeare and Theatre in Cambridge: An Online Exhibition

Last month, King’s College Library and Archives hosted an exhibition for the Open Cambridge weekend as part of the events marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The exhibition, held on 9 and 10 September, showcased scarce editions of Shakespeare’s plays alongside other treasures from the special collections in the College Archive celebrating theatre and the history of theatre in Cambridge. Below are some selected highlights from the exhibition focusing on early editions of Shakespeare’s works.

College Librarian James Clements and College Archivist Patricia McGuire waiting to welcome visitors

College Librarian James Clements and College Archivist Patricia McGuire waiting to welcome visitors

King’s College’s First Folio (1623) is one of only 234 known surviving copies. The title-page portrait in this copy is not original and appears to be an engraved facsimile. The importance of this book cannot be overstated. Pivotal plays like The Tempest, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Julius Caesar were printed here for the first time, and may have been lost otherwise. Next to it is the first facsimile reprint of the First Folio, edited by Francis Douce. The date has been derived from the paper, which is watermarked: Shakespeare. J. Whatman, 1807:

Shakespeare’s First Folio (right) next to the 1807 facsimile reprint (left)

Shakespeare’s First Folio (right) next to the 1807 facsimile reprint (left)

On the other side of the display case are the two other Folios from the Thackeray Bequest: the Second (1632) and the Fourth (1685). The printing of the former was carried out by Thomas Cotes and a syndicate of five other partners: Richard Hawkins, John Smethwick, William Aspley, Robert Allot, and Richard Meighen. This copy bears the “exceedingly rare” Hawkins imprint (Frank Karslake, Book Auction Records, London: William Dawson, 1903; p. 355):

Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies London: Printed by Tho[mas] Cotes, for Richard Hawkins, 1632

Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies
London: Printed by Tho[mas] Cotes, for Richard Hawkins, 1632

The Fourth Folio included seven additional plays: Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Locrine; The London Prodigal; The Puritan; Sir John Oldcastle; Thomas Lord Cromwell; and A Yorkshire Tragedy. All of these had been printed as quartos during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but only Pericles is now seriously considered to have any Shakespearean connection. The front board of this copy was completely detached; it was repaired in August 2016 thanks to the grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Mr. William Shakespear’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies: Published According to the True Original Copies London: Printed for H. Herringman, E. Brewster, and R. Bentley, 1685.

Mr. William Shakespear’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies
London: Printed for H. Herringman, E. Brewster, and R. Bentley, 1685

As well as the Folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays, the exhibition also included early quartos of individual plays. This is a third edition of Henry V, a reprint of the second quarto of 1602. The imprint date is false, as the book was printed in 1619 for the Shakespearean collection of that year:

William Shakespeare, The Chronicle History of Henry the Fift London: Printed [by William Jaggard] for T[homas] P[avier], 1608 [i.e. 1619]

William Shakespeare, The Chronicle History of Henry the Fift
London: Printed [by William Jaggard] for T[homas] P[avier], 1608 [i.e. 1619]

Below is a copy of the fourth edition of Othello. The play was entered into the Stationers’ Register on 6 October 1621 by Thomas Walkley, and the first quarto was printed by him in 1622.

William Shakespeare, The Tragoedy of Othello, the Moore of Venice London: Printed for William Leak, 1655

William Shakespeare, The Tragoedy of Othello, the Moore of Venice
London: Printed for William Leak, 1655

Featured in the exhibition were also later editions of Shakespeare’s works. This 18th-century collection of his plays, edited by Kingsman George Steevens (1736-1800), includes a facsimile of Shakespeare’s will:

The Plays of William Shakspeare: In Fifteen Volumes. With the Corrections and Illustrations of Various Commentators. To Which Are Added Notes by Samuel Johnson and George Steevens London: Printed [by H. Baldwin] for T. Longman, et al., 1793

The Plays of William Shakspeare: In Fifteen Volumes. With the Corrections and Illustrations of Various Commentators. To Which Are Added Notes by Samuel Johnson and George Steevens
London: Printed [by H. Baldwin] for T. Longman, et al., 1793

Despite inclement weather on the second day, the event was attended by more than 600 local people:

Local residents attending the exhibition on 9 September 2016

Local residents attending the exhibition on 9 September 2016

Our Shakespeare season culminated in a public lecture on the First Folio by a leading world expert, Professor Emma Smith (Hertford College, Oxford) on 3 October 2016. Professor Smith’s talk took the captive audience into the First Folio, and investigated the clues it gives us about Shakespeare’s writing methods, the early modern theatre, and the development of the Shakespeare brand.



Public Lecture on Shakespeare’s First Folio

Our series of events marking the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death culminates in a public lecture on Shakespeare’s First Folio by a leading world expert, Professor Emma Smith (Hertford College, Oxford), author of Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (2016) and The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio (2015). The lecture will be held in the Audit Room at King’s College, Cambridge on Monday 3rd October 2016 at 6pm.

Front cover of Emma Smith's The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio (2015)

Front cover of Emma Smith’s The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio (2015)

Professor Smith’s lecture is entitled “Reading Shakespeare’s First Folio”. She will discuss the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the First Folio of 1623, which has become one of the world’s most sought-after books. This illustrated talk takes us into the First Folio, and investigates the clues it gives us about Shakespeare’s writing methods, the early modern theatre, and the development of the Shakespeare brand. You can hear Professor Smith talk about the recent discovery of a copy of the First Folio on the Isle of Bute here:


The event is free and open to all, but as spaces are limited, we ask that you reserve your place by going to the following website and clicking on ‘Register’ before printing your ticket:


Those attending the lecture are invited to visit King’s College Library to view the First Folio from the Thackeray Bequest between 5pm and 6pm on 3rd October and after the talk. We look forward to seeing you there!




HLF funding for King’s Library

King’s Library has received £44,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for an exciting project, ‘Shakespeare and Austen at King’s College: Celebrating their Centenaries in 2016 and 2017’. The project will result in the online cataloguing and conservation of the English literature section of the Thackeray collection of rare books, bequeathed to King’s College Library in the mid-nineteenth century by the sometime Provost of the College, George Thackeray (1777-1850), cousin of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863). A major part of the project is a comprehensive programme of outreach activities and online educational material.

by Richard James Lane, lithograph, 1851

George Thackeray (1777-1850) by Richard James Lane, lithograph, 1851

The project will enable local people and volunteers to engage with some of the most important books in the history of English literature through a series of exhibitions, talks, open days and workshops for young people, and give a worldwide audience the opportunity to learn about the collection online. Owing to the lack of a proper online catalogue, the collection has remained difficult to explore.

Shakespeare folio image

Title page of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623)

Highlights in Thackeray’s library include Shakespeare’s First Folio, first and early editions of all of Austen’s novels, a collection of 16th-century books on theology (including works by Sir Thomas More, Martin Luther and Erasmus), and over one thousand volumes of early editions of the most important English authors in sumptuous historic bindings. Other major writers included are John Milton, John Donne, Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson.

We are delighted to have received the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will enable us to gain a much better understanding of the Thackeray collection and help us to improve access to these treasures. We are also looking forward to the many opportunities the project will afford us to allow local people to engage with their heritage (anyone interested in volunteering for the project is most welcome to get in touch), and hopefully revisit the works of Shakespeare and Austen during their anniversary years.