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Shakespeare's First Folio: Rare 1623 collection expected to fetch $6m at auction

William Shakespeare's First Folio is displayed at Christie's auction rooms in London, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020.
William Shakespeare's First Folio is displayed at Christie's auction rooms in London, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. Copyright Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reservedKirsty Wigglesworth
Copyright Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
By Jez Fielder
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Only six of these famous texts are in private hands, and one of them is about to go to auction.


When John Heminge and Henry Condell collated and published what became known as William Shakespeare's First Folio in 1623, they were only just beginning to understand the English playwright's greatness. 

The Stratford dramatist had died seven years earlier in 1616 but over four centuries later he is now still regarded as the unparalleled master of his art. 

It could be contended that the folio itself contributed towards the success of the content within, as this large form format was almost exclusively used for religious texts and would have thus attributed a status to the tome that other literary publications could not have rivalled. 

"The First Folio always stands out. It is a phenomenon. I mean partly just because of the text and resonance of Shakespeare and that he does speak to all ages, and all people, and cultures and so a complete copy of the first folio really is in any context going to be a tremendous moment," says Margaret Ford, the head of books and manuscripts at Christie's, where the auction is taking place.

Knowledge of what actually constitutes the complete Shakespearean cannon is hard to come by. The authorship of certain plays remains a matter for debate in literary circles, with eight or more plays thought to have been the result of collaboration. 

There are also a cadre of people - known as Anti-Stratfordians - who believe that Shakespeare was used as a front for other writers whose profiles in society were too lofty to admit authorship. 

But whatever the provenance, this book saved so many classic plays from extinction. Without it, 18 in the collection may not have survived as they had never been printed, despite their popularity - Macbeth and Julius Caesar to name but two. 

Heminge and Condell compiled it from what are known as the 'good quartos' and from long disappeared manuscripts such as prompt books and working drafts (amusingly named 'foul papers'). 

The copy that will go under the hammer in April was studied by 18th Century scholar Edmond Malone, and was exhibited as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

The folio will be auctioned on 24 April at the New York branch of Christie's.

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