An edition of the First Folio (London, 1623) seen at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, April 23rd 2023.

Today marks the culmination of the 400th birthday celebrations of the First Folio: one of the most influential books ever to have been published. We travelled to Stratford-upon-Avon on Shakespeare’s birthday to see the edition above, part of an exhibition called The Great Variety of Readers.

Here was the famous Droeshout engraving, which was commissioned by the poet’s friends seven years after his death. It was not, perhaps, a very good likeness because, in his dedicatory poem, Ben Jonson says that – since the artist can’t really reproduce Shakespeare the man – the reader should “looke / Not on his Picture, but his Booke”. 

Martin Droeshout's famous engraving, with a circular repair around the jaw and collar.

We also saw Shakespeare’s seal-ring: found in a field next to Holy Trinity Church in March 1810. The initials W.S. appear on the 21-carat-gold face and extensive research in Stratford’s archives suggests that it could only have belonged to Shakespeare. Chatting to one of the volunteers in shop afterwards, he helpfully explained that rings were often worn on top of gloves, and that the poet probably lost the ring while taking his glove off at his daughter’s wedding at Holy Trinity Church in 1616.

This object was accompanied by perhaps my favourite item: a tiny 17th-century notebook filled with handwritten quotations from the First Folio. It came to light in 2017 when John Markham bought it to BBC1’s Antiques Roadshow. It was billed in the exhibition as belonging to “the first Shakespeare geek”.

Shakespeare's seal-ring and a tiny mid-17th-century notebook full of quotes from the First Folio.

I was very lucky to receive a copy of the Norton Facsimile (based on Folios held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.) as a birthday gift this year. The scholarship is outstanding and it’s such a treat to handle the book and read the prefatory material, including the quite wonderful address (by John Heminge and Henry Condell) “To the great Variety of Readers”. Because of the size of the book, I struggled to find a stand for it, until my husband hit on a brilliant idea: a Bible stand! Given that Bibles were usually printed in folio size, this has proved to be an excellent solution.

My Norton Facsimile: based on Folios in the Folger Library Collection.

The only book stand big enough to hold it was a Bible stand.