This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio, without which it’s likely that most of his plays would have been lost, and there are two exhibitions to mark the anniversary.

Fortunately, they’re also in two venues practically next to each other.

The leading exhibition is in the Guildhall Library and looks at how the folio was printed and its history over the centuries as it faded from importance and was later rediscovered. It’s very much a story of accidents, as the decision to collect the plays in the first place was a rarity and relied on a somewhat risky decision to print a big expensive book for people to buy.

However, as it missed out a few plays, later editions were seen as better, so the first editions were often treated as just older editions and not as good as the later versions, so people happily sold or got rid of their older copies when new ones came out.

The exhibition has a number of copies of early editions on display, accompanied by some of the other books published that studied Shakespeare’s plays.

What’s quite interesting though is the long timeline on the wall, which tells the less well known story of how the plays were somewhat debased in the 17th-18th century and quite often changed into musicals to get around the sort of censorship that the formal theatre operated under at the time.

Today, it’s not unusual to reset the plays into contemporary settings, but with the play itself little changed, but that’s a recent development. In the past, Shakespeare wasn’t treated quite so reverently, and well, it’s interesting to read some of the antics that previous theatre shows got up to on the timeline.

It took a rich American couple to give the Bard his importance back, and they spent a small fortune collecting as much as they could, likely saving many First Folios from the rubbish bin, at the same time that actors started to return to the purity of the First Folio as the correct version of Shakespeare to adhere to.

The City of London owns a copy of the First Folio, but what’s on display in this exhibition is a facsimile copy of the book – because the original is a couple of minutes away in another exhibiton.

Down in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery, the City of London has put its copy of the First Folio on display, and also put on display is a document containing one of just six examples of Shakespere’s authenticated signature.

It’s on a grand document, a property deed from when he bought a house. If you’re wondering, there are three signatures on the deed, and William signed the leftmost seal – so that’s the one you’ll want to peer at closely.

One of the sadder documents on display is a family tragedy – the death of William’s nephew, Edmund Shackspeere, recorded in the parish register. The display does include an arrow in the book to point out which line to look for, although I’d suggest getting your phone out and using that as a magnifying glass to get close enough to the text to read it.

The two exhibitions are complementary with each other and give a fresh insight into William’s family life and the life of his plays after he died.

The library exhibition isn’t on the Guildhall Library website, but will be open until Tuesday 30th January 2024 and is free to visit. The library is open Monday to Thursday from 10am to 4pm.

The display in the Guildhall Art Gallery’s heritage gallery will be in place until 25th January 2024, and is also free to visit. The Guildhall Art Gallery is open daily from 10:30am to 4pm.


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