Rare First Edition Of Shakespeare’s Plays Found Just Before 400th Anniversary

English scholars everywhere were agog when the next closest thing to the Holy Grail, the first edition of Shakespeare’s 36 plays, was recently discovered in the Mount Stuart House, according to Herald Scotland.

This much-heralded first edition of Shakespeare’s plays, also known as the First Folios, contains the original 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623 shortly after his death. Apparently, the first edition was never authenticated, although it was listed among the effects in the house.

“I’ve been working here about a year and I kept walking past it on the shelf, but I didn’t think for a minute it could be a first edition,” Alice Martin, Head of Historical Collections at Mount Stuart House, said. “Then one day I got it down and started going through it, and I began to think ‘wait a minute, this might be real after all’.”

In fact, few believed at first that it was a real first edition, split into three volumes and bound in goatskin. The first edition was passed on to Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford University, who ultimately declared it was an authentic first edition. Only 750 of such volumes were ever produced.

The New York Times reports that the number of surviving first editions of Shakespeare’s plays now sits at 234 with the discovery of this latest volume. Professor Eric Rasmussen of the University of Nevada in Reno authenticated a first edition found in France in 2014 and said he was convinced that the work Professor Smith undertook in authenticating this newer discovery proves this first edition is the real deal.

The discovery of this first edition of Shakespeare’s plays, oddly enough, coincides with the upcoming 400th anniversary of his death. April 23, 2016, marks the anniversary, and Mount Stuart House will be displaying this priceless first edition of the Bard’s work until October, according to the Journal.

According to the New York Times, this first edition is owned by the seventh Marquess of Bute, Johnny Dumfries, while it seems to have been previously in the hands of Isaac Reed, a London literary editor in the 1700s. It was believed that this particular first edition of Shakespeare’s works may well have been Reed’s working copy.

Professor Smith acknowledged the significance of the find for English scholars everywhere, noting, “Without this (edition) we would have lost probably half of Shakespeare’s work.”

Certainly, that would have proven to be incredibly sad for performers and English teachers everywhere, for whom Shakespeare has become something of a cornerstone for almost every type of English curriculum. Themes covered in Shakespeare’s plays have proven to be wide-ranging and, in many cases, as relevant today as they were centuries ago, so the discovery of this first edition is doubly significant.

Although the language may be challenging for many students at first glance, Shakespeare contains powerful imagery and commentary that still resonates today with many. Ovations,, the magazine of the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts, said that the reason why Shakespeare is still so potent is in part because of the hype surrounding the artist, but also because humanity still experiences all the same issues that they were going through in Shakespeare’s heyday.

“They (early modern audiences) would enjoy the ghosts, the political intrigue, the murder plots, the nations at war. These were things that were on people’s minds at that time,” said Mark Bayer, an associate professor and chair of the Department of English at UTSA.

The process through which this latest first edition of Shakespeare’s works was authenticated still has to be released to the broader academic world for perusal, but that said, people are still quite excited that this first edition has turned up.

Martin said the newest first edition will not be sold, but rather displayed at Mount Stuart House.

[Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images]