Comedies, histories and tragedies: Inside a magnificent 17th century Willliam Shakespeare Third Folio

| 22 April 2016

This Third Folio of William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies was published in 1685. Adam Douglas, Senior Books Specialist at leading rare books firm Peter Harrington, takes a closer look

A photo of the head of William Shakespeare
© peterharrington.co.uk
“The third folio is in some ways the rarest of the four 17th century folios. It was issued in two impressions – the first impression was really a straight reprint of the second folio. But in the second issue it has, added to it for the first time, as the title page says, the seven plays never before printed in folio.

They are: Pericles Prince of Tyre, The London Prodigall, The History of Thomas Ld Cromwell, Sir John Oldcastle Lord Cobham, The Puritan Widow, A York-shire Tragedy and The Tragedy of Locrine. Of those, only Pericles is now accepted as being authentically Shakespearian. This is the first appearance of Pericles in print in the folios.

The second of the two title pages says London, Printed for PC, 1664. In the first impression there was a rather curious thing where a space had been left for the portrait on the title page, but in the impression the famous portrait of Shakespeare is facing the title page, as was continued in the fourth folio. That’s how we usually expect to see it, with Ben Jonson’s verses to the reader below the figure of Shakespeare.

A photo of the third folio of william shakespeare, a colourful red and yellow book
© peterharrington.co.uk
The reason for its rarity has often been debated but the likeliest explanation is that the printing date of this edition, 1664, is perilously close to the Great Fire of London, which famously burnt down St Paul’s, where most of the booksellers had their premises outside in the precincts of the cathedral. The stock of this book was lost.

In other respects it’s like the other folios. It prints all the comedies, histories and tragedies in double column within this frame around the text. This is a nice copy with a few of the little marks that you’d expect to see in a folio that’s been consulted over the years. You sometimes get spill burns where perhaps a little bit of candle has fallen onto the page. You sometimes get rust stains or other little marks.

With early folios one likes to go to the end and see if there’s been any messing around or restoration. As we’d expect to see, the binding has a little paper restoration at the tips of the leaves. The frontispiece portrait has been trimmed around and is laid down. That first leaf would be very liable to damage when the first binding started to fall apart, as it might do with repeated reading.

A photo of the third folio of william shakespeare, a colourful red and yellow book
© peterharrington.co.uk
This is not the first binding: it’s a grand 19th century binding, typical of the way 19th century binders would treat Shakespeare, with a fully gilt bind and all the decoration, gilt fillets around the edge to show a bit of style. The binder has signed it, at the top left hand corner of the end paper, Francis Bedford, who was one of the smartest binders in London at the time.

We see, also, a little shelfmark next to it in pencil, W 11 A copy 3, which is rather grand: whoever had this had three copies of the third folio. When we look at the front paste down we see that it was the American millionaire Pierpont Morgan, whose library is now in New York City Library. It was a famous collection.

We’ve seen the invoice on the day that he bought this book: he bought it in London from the bookseller Henry Sotheran’s. On the same day he bought all four Shakespeare folios and the Gutenberg Bible for cash. Those days are gone, sadly, but this is a magnificent copy.”


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© peterharrington.co.uk
A photo of the third folio of william shakespeare, a colourful red and yellow book
© peterharrington.co.uk
A photo words from the third folio of william shakespeare, a colourful red and yellow book
© peterharrington.co.uk
A photo words from the third folio of william shakespeare, a colourful red and yellow book
© peterharrington.co.uk
A photo words from the third folio of william shakespeare, a colourful red and yellow book
© peterharrington.co.uk
A photo words from the third folio of william shakespeare, a colourful red and yellow book
© peterharrington.co.uk
A photo words from the third folio of william shakespeare, a colourful red and yellow book
© peterharrington.co.uk
A photo words from the third folio of william shakespeare, a colourful red and yellow book
© peterharrington.co.uk
A photo words from the third folio of william shakespeare, a colourful red and yellow book
© peterharrington.co.uk
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