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Shakespeare’s First Folio

Photograph of a lead ingot in a museum case.

© Skipton Town Hall

Date 1623

The First Folio is the first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays.


What is significant about Shakespeare’s First Folio?

The First Folio is the first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays. The text was collated by two of Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell. They worked from manuscripts and prompt copies now lost to us, as well as earlier printed editions of some of the plays. Not all of Shakespeare’s plays were published during his life so that eighteen of them only survive as part of the First Folio, including Julius Caesar, Macbeth and The Tempest.

Around 750 copies of the First Folio were published in 1623, seven years after his death. Today, around 235 copies have been found worldwide.

This First Folio lacks its introductory pages and all of the comedies. A complete copy of the First Folio contains thirty-six plays, but many surviving First Folios have missing pages.

When it came to the museum it was originally catalogued as a Second Folio from 1632. In 2003 Shakespeare expert, Dr Anthony West, identified it as a true First Folio and it has been on display at the museum since 2011. Craven Museum is one of only a few places where the First Folio is on permanent display and we change the page opening regularly to preserve it from fading.

A close up cropped image of some text in the Shakespeare's First Folio

© Skipton Town Hall

Close up image of the spine of the first folio. Brown canvas cover. It reads '1623 Imperfect'.

© Skipton Town Hall

How did this copy of the First Folio come to Craven Museum?

This copy of the First Folio belonged to local businessman John James Wilkinson. His family owned Primrose Mill in Embsay, along with tobacconists and grocers’ shops. John was also a noted scientist and amateur playwright, co-writing a play about Skipton. When John died, he left his First Folio to his sister, Ann. She bequeathed it to the museum in 1936.

John James Wilkinson bought this First Folio around 1900 but we don’t know where it was before that time. It’s binding dates from the early 20th century and it appears to have spent some time unbound before this. The first and last few pages are discoloured, showing it lacked protection for a period. A newspaper account of the sale of the Heaton library from Ponden Hall in 1899 describes an unbound First Folio as being amongst the books but it was not listed in the sale catalogue. It was also thought to be complete, while Wilkinson’s one was incomplete. Without further evidence it is hard to know if these two copies are connected and we may never know where the Craven Museum copy came from before it was purchased by John James Wilkinson.