Bodleian's unique copy of Shakespeare's plays gets a new lease of life online

Shakespeare22 April 2013

The Bodleian Libraries are marking Shakespeare’s birthday on 23 April by publishing online the digitized copy of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, dating to c.1623, also known as the First Folio. The copy can be viewed online free of charge at http://shakespeare.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/.

The digitization of the 1,000-page volume was made possible thanks to numerous donations from around the world received in response to a public appeal launched in August 2012. The campaign reached its target of £20,000 in December. The campaign was supported by great names from the world of theatre and academia, including actress Vanessa Regrave, actors Stephen Fry and Tom Hiddleston, Founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company Sir Peter Hall and current Artistic Director Greg Doran, celebrated theatre producer Thelma Holt, The Times Literary Supplement Editor Sir Peter Stothard, and Shakespeare scholar Professor Jonathan Bate from the University of Oxford.

This online resource is available worldwide and accessible free of charge for anyone – from schoolchildren and scholars, to actors and directors – to enjoy exploring its pages. Accompanied by articles and blogs from academics, specialists, theatre professionals and members of the public alike, the website will become a dynamic forum to celebrate Shakespeare and prepare for Oxford’s celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016.

It is apparent opening up this Bodleian treasure online has captured the imagination of curious Shakespeare lovers around the world. All supporters of the Sprint for Shakespeare fundraising campaign have been recognised on the First Folio website, providing a unique opportunity for anyone to associate their name with one of the greatest treasures in the Bodleian’s collection and with a project which will inspire online readers today and in the future.

While copies of this book are not uncommon, the Bodleian’s First Folio is a rarity because it has not been rebound or restored in the almost four centuries since it was first received by the Library in 1623. Its unique marks of wear connect us with the tastes of early readers, and we can see how their hands have worn the pages of Romeo and Juliet almost to shreds, while leaving King John virtually pristine. The volume left the library in the 1660s and was returned after the exceptional response to a public fundraising campaign to buy it at the turn of the 20th century, showing the strong national affection felt both for Shakespeare and for the Bodleian’s role in protecting and championing our national cultural heritage.

Dr Sarah Thomas, Bodley’s Librarian said: ‘We are grateful for the numerous gifts which were sent from around the world in support of our efforts to digitize the Bodleian copy of the First Folio. These are a testimony that Shakespeare’s plays transcend cultures and are loved by everyone. We hope that by publishing this special volume online , we will be able to take continue Bodleian’s mission of making its treasures accessible to scholars and general public alike.’

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