Rare Shakespeare book on display in Singapore for the first time

SINGAPORE: To see or not to see? That is the question for William Shakespeare fans, as a 400-year-old copy of the Bard’s work makes its way to Singapore for the first time.

This month, the National Library is exhibiting a rare copy of the playwright’s legendary First Folio, the first anthology compiling his plays.

Around 750 copies of these were believed to have been published in 1623, and only 230 remain today, many of which are kept in private collections.

The book, which is on loan from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, will be on display at the library’s 10th floor gallery until April 23, which is coincidentally regarded as the day Shakespeare died. Last year was the 400th anniversary of his death.

While the brittle leather-bound 950-page tome remains hands-off to the public, visitors can browse digital versions on two tablets. Alternatively, copies can be downloaded on http://firstfolio.bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

The National Library will also hold a public talk on the First Folio by Shakespeare experts from the UK on March 26.

The title page and introduction to Shakespeare’s First Folio, which features one of the most iconic portraits of the playwright, as well as a poem written in tribute to him by friend and fellow writer Ben Jonson. (Photo: National Library Board)

“A lot of Singaporeans, especially students, might have encountered him and his works in school, so this would be a good opportunity for them to see an important literary artefact,” said National Library assistant curator Georgina Wong. “The status it now has shows Shakespeare’s timeless appeal.”

This appeal extends to Asia, she added, with many of the remaining copies of the First Folio found in Japan. To underscore the Shakespeare’s Asian links, the library showcase also cited examples of how Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted, including a mak yong (a Malaysian dance drama) version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen’s groundbreaking experimental take on King Lear.

While some of his plays had previously been published individually, the First Folio was the first time his entire works had been assembled together into a definitive volume.

In fact, Wong pointed out, 18 plays would have been lost forever had it not been for the anthology, including classics like Julius Caesar, Macbeth and The Tempest.

But Shakespeare did not have a hand in the production of the book – the plays were compiled seven years after his death by his colleagues at the King’s Men theatre company. They also took it upon themselves to categorise his plays into comedies, histories and tragedies. “This would eventually shape our understanding of his plays,” said Wong.

Romeo And Juliet from Shakespeare’s First Folio, which was published 400 years ago.

The book also features a tribute poem by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Ben Jonson, and an image of the Bard that has since been regarded as his most iconic portrait.

According to Wong, the First Folio would be the “closest source” to Shakespeare’s original work, as editors would often be changing the lines later on. By the 1800s, there would be different versions of his plays around.

There have also been three other folio editions published during the 1600s, but these included plays that experts questioned were written solely by Shakespeare.

Each rare copy of the First Folio has a story to tell, Wong added. The one currently on display features annotations by its original owner, Edmond Malone, who is regarded as one of the world’s first Shakespeare scholars.

“One can see which of his plays were considered popular by how much the pages are worn, too,” she added.

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