The Rylands copies of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1623) and the first edition of his sonnets (1609) are currently on display in the Rylands Gallery as part of events commemorating the 400th anniversary of his death. For more information, see Celebrating Shakespeare

Seven years after Shakespeare’s death, his plays, including many never before published, were assembled, ordered into the now familiar categories of comedies, histories and tragedies, and issued in a single volume by his friends John Heminge and Henry Condell, effectively ensuring their survival in what has become known as the First Folio. The title-page bears a portrait of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout. Being so contemporary, and issued with the approval of his friends, it has been supposed to be a good likeness of the author.

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The Rylands First Folio is notable for being the copy thought to have been studied by two renowned editors of Shakespeare’s works, Lewis Theobald and George Steevens, when compiling their own editions.

Lewis Theobald, an eighteenth-century lawyer, classicist and writer of pantomimes, issued his Shakespeare edition in 1733. Theobald had severely criticised Alexander Pope’s edition of 1725, resulting in lengthy public animosity between the two scholars. Theobald is little remembered nowadays outside Shakespeare circles, yet his Shakespeare edition attracted critical acclaim.

The Rylands copy bears this handwritten note: “N.B. This was the book Mr. Theobald made use of for his edition.” It is not definitely known if Theobald actually owned this copy, although it is believed to be the one he used in preparing his own Shakespeare edition.

George Steevens, having published revisions to Samuel Johnson’s 1765 Shakespeare edition, was encouraged and supported by Johnson in producing his own ten volume edition, which was finished in 1773. As well as being an ardent book collector and scholar, Steevens became known also as a hoaxer, producing several credible items which were at first taken for genuine. His hoaxes included forged Shakespeare correspondence, an Anglo-Saxon tombstone, and a fictitious scholarly article on the discovery of a deadly Javanese tree.

The Rylands First Folio was bought at the sale of Martin Folkes’ library in 1756 by Dr. John Monro, an associate of Steevens. It is thought to have been passed from Monro to Steevens, and subsequently to George John, 2nd Earl Spencer. It was certainly in Earl Spencer’s library before 1822, when it was described by Thomas Dibdin in his Bibliotheca Spenceriana, where he wrote: “Every leaf of this copy was carefully examined by George Steevens, for Earl Spencer.”

jrl0903768dcThis first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was printed in 1609 in a quarto volume containing 154 sonnets, followed by the longer “A Lover’s Complaint”. The sonnets are addressed to either a “fair youth” or to a “dark lady”, and the volume is dedicated to “Mr. W.H.”. Despite much scholarly research and as much speculation, the identities of these individuals have never been definitively proved, and so the enigma remains. Although a smaller and more modest publication than the First Folio, this edition is far rarer, the Rylands Sonnets being one of only thirteen known extant copies.

It was purchased for £8 in 1798 by Earl Spencer at the sale of the library of the Shakespearian scholar, Rev. Richard Farmer. The sale catalogue refers to a handwritten inscription on the final leaf, and draws attention to speculation that this is in Shakespeare’s hand, although we have no evidence to support this. The identity of the recipient also remains unknown. The inscription: “Comendacons to my very kind and approued ffreind” does however appear to be contemporary, and of great interest, adding, as it does, another layer of mystery concerning the ownership and dedication of this important volume.
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We would welcome your thoughts on the final part of the inscription, which we believe is 23:M:, or possibly B:M:, and could be a date or initials.

If you can’t make it to Manchester, both volumes have been digitised and are available on our image database:

First Folio (Spencer 8123)
Sonnets (Spencer 10739)

Mary O’Connor and Christine Stahl.