Shakespeare’s First Folio in Vancouver

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The University of British Columbia has acquired a complete first edition of William Shakespeare’s Comedies Histories and Tragedies—an extremely rare book published seven years after Shakespeare’s death and credited with preserving almost half of his plays. Known as the First Folio, it will be on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery from January 15 to March, 2022 along with three subsequent seventeenth-century Folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays, marking the first time all four Folios have been displayed in Vancouver.

Photo of William Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1623, and gifted to the UBC Library
Photo of William Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1623, and gifted to the UBC Library

Shakespeare’s First Folio in Vancouver

UBC acquired the First Folio, formerly owned by a private collector in the U.S., through Christie’s New York with funding provided by a consortium of donors from across North America and with the generous support of the Department of Canadian Heritage. 

The First Folio includes 36 of Shakespeare’s 38 known plays, edited by his close friends, fellow writers and actors. It is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays and the foundation of his enduring legacy and reputation. When Shakespeare died in 1616, only about half of his works had appeared in print. Eighteen plays—including The Tempest, Macbeth, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale, and Julius Caesar— remained unpublished in any form. The First Folio thus not only gave their first appearance in print but was also the means by which they were preserved and passed on to posterity

“In comparison to many of our peer institutions, we are a relatively young university library,” said University Librarian Dr. Susan E. Parker. “We are deeply grateful to the many foundations and individual donors who have been essential in making an acquisition like this possible for a place like UBC Library and we are honoured to be its caretakers.”

The opportunity to purchase a First Folio arose in early 2021. Katherine Kalsbeek, head of rare books and special collections (RBSC) at UBC Library, knew that with so few copies left in private hands the library had to act.

“The First Folio is a cornerstone of English literature and with this donation, we are able to bring this cultural treasure into public ownership,” Kalsbeek said. “Adding a First Folio to the UBC Library collection represents a milestone in terms of our development as both a library and as a university.” Only 235 copies of the First Folio remain around the world, mostly in the U.K. and U.S. The nine copies in public collections on the west coast are all in California. This cultural treasure is only the second copy in Canada.

“Preserving this precious book in UBC Library makes it accessible for future generations, inspires new knowledge, and furthers our commitment to engage in world-class research in the arts and humanities,” said Santa J. Ono, UBC president and vice-chancellor.

Cultural properties of the First Folio’s magnitude and capacity to engage the public’s imagination are not evenly distributed around the world. Of the estimated 235 copies that remain worldwide, there is only one other copy in Toronto, Canada. UBC’s acquisition of a First Folio, now on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery, provides public access to one of the world’s greatest English language cultural treasures.

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