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:
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:
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?”:
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.
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!