Rare Books Collection, University of Melbourne Library
In 1623, the first folio-sized edition of Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories and tragedies was printed, seven years after the death of the playwright. Before this, the Bard’s plays were printed exclusively in much smaller quarto editions, with numerous folds. In fact, only half of his plays were published in that fashion. The early folios published another 18 plays for the first time, including Macbeth, Twelfth night and The tempest, with text taken from prompt books, Shakespeare’s working drafts, and transcriptions by King’s Men scribe Ralph Crane. The Shakespeare folio is considered one of the most important books in history, as it ensured a continuing published presence for the playwright, preserving and disseminating his works for future generations.
The University of Melbourne Rare Books Collection holds the second edition (1632) of this volume, which was born out of the extraordinary popularity of the first folio, with minor changes and updates to the text. Although the frontispiece features a portrait of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout, the introductory verse by Ben Jonson on the opposite page encourages the reader to concentrate not on the man’s image, but on his words.
The University of Melbourne’s curriculum is rich and varied, and changes from year to year. For more teaching ideas, contact a collection manager.
Literature and Performance
Discuss the importance of the folio editions of the works of Shakespeare. How do they differ from the early quarto editions in delivery and format? Consider also how this publication affected Shakespeare’s influence on future playwrights.
History of Books and Reading
Look at the Rare Books Collection’s later volumes of Shakespeare that followed the first and second folios. Discuss the changes that occur in later editions (such as size, illustrations, language, number of volumes, forewords). What social factors may have contributed to changes in the presentation of Shakespeare’s written plays over the following centuries?
History of Books and Reading
Look at Martin Droeshout’s frontispiece portrait of Shakespeare – a portrait that became a prototype for future representations of the Bard. Discuss the anatomical peculiarities of the engraving, which was criticised by those who first saw it, and consider the role that a frontispiece plays in the reader’s experience of a published written work.
Shakespeare in Performance
Using items from the Rare Books Collection and the Baillieu Library Print Collection, explore the various historical contexts in which Shakespeare has been adapted for the stage since the publication of the second folio. See in particular the illustrations in Theobald’s Works of Shakespeare (1762), and portraits of actors found in the Baillieu Library Print Collection and in Bell’s edition of Shakspere (1788).
The Theatre Experience
Consider the world in which Shakespeare lived, in 16th-century London. Discuss the influence this might have had on his plays, and consider other sources the Bard may have used in creating the settings for his plays.
Looking at the above questions, consider areas beyond English and theatre studies in which Shakespeare can be approached (such as history, art history, and social studies). Discuss how an understanding of Shakespeare in these other fields can enrich study of the text itself.
Wallace Kirsop (curator), Knowledge through print: A Melbourne perspective (exhibition catalogue, Baillieu Library), University of Melbourne, 2012, p. 33.
David McInnis (curator), After Shakespeare (exhibition booklet, Baillieu Library), University of Melbourne Library, 2016.
Callum Reid, ‘The Bard’s plays in pictures: Shakespeare in the Baillieu Library Print Collection’, University of Melbourne Collections, issue 18, June 2016, pp. 41–7.