News that the University of British Columbia has acquired a First Folio — a 1623 publication gathering together 36 of the 38 known plays of William Shakespeare — was greeted with joy by many, even as there were some grumbles about why the money used to purchase the rare volume wasn’t used for something more practical.
UBC is keeping mum about the exact purchase price, only stating that it was not a record for the rare volume, of which only about 235 (out of an initial publication run of under 800 copies) are known to exist. That record — set in 2020 — was just under US$10 million, so it’s fair to say that several million dollars changed hands so that the book could find a home in B.C.
The easy answer as to why that money wasn’t spent on something else is because it was raised specifically to purchase the First Folio. As to why UBC wanted a First Folio, the answer is likewise simple: along with the King James version of the Bible, published a few years earlier in 1611, it is the most important and influential work in the English language, which in the 17th century was very much behind Latin, Greek, French, and Italian when it came to being respected.
William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies (to give the book its full title) was compiled just seven years after Shakespeare’s death by some of the writer’s friends and colleagues. It is the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays ever published, and the fact that it was done so soon after the Bard’s death meant that those compiling it had access to almost all of his works. Several of the plays collected in the First Folio, including Macbeth, As You Like It, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and Twelfth Night, had not been published before then, meaning that if it had been left too long, those plays might not have survived.
Don’t believe me? One of the plays in the First Folio is Love’s Labour’s Lost (written c. 1594), a comedy about the King of Navarre and three of his companions, who vow to give up women for three years in order to focus on their studies, then immediately fall in love when the Princess of France and three of her ladies-in-waiting arrive. The play ends on an ambiguous note, with the women telling the men they must wait a year and a day to prove their love. Curtain.
Or was it? Two separate sources (in 1598 and 1603) mention Love’s Labour’s Lost amongst Shakespeare’s plays, and both also list a play attributed to the Bard called Love’s Labour’s Won. Was this merely an alternative name for a surviving Shakespeare play? Or did he write a sequel to his earlier work, one that was not collected in the First Folio and has been lost to history? We might never know.
I could spend all day talking about why Shakespeare is so important. His stories and characters ring through the ages, reminding us that there is nothing new under the sun. Are you a fan of the HBO series Succession? Shakespeare did the whole “rich and powerful old man sows discord among his potential heirs” thing in King Lear. His characters might speak differently to us, but we recognize them and all their joys and sorrows, loves and hates.
Speaking of that speech, Shakespeare contributed about 1,700 words to the English language that had not been written down before they were printed in his play-scripts, including bedroom, downstairs, eyeball, manager, obscene, lonely, fashionable, critic, bandit, and rant (some of these are words he invented). If you speak English, you use some of Shakespeare’s language — words and phrases — every day.
Shakespeare’s works are timeless, holding a mirror up to nature and allowing us to learn more about ourselves and our place in the world by reading words written more than four centuries ago. A part of the history of the English language, and perhaps its greatest author, now lives at UBC, where it will continue to inspire for years to come.