Bodleian campaigns to digitise Shakespeare’s First Folio

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Big names from the world of arts, culture and academia have lined up to support the Bodleian Libraries’ fundraising campaign to make the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays available online.

The campaign, Sprint for Shakespeare, was launched last week, and aims to raise £20,000 by public appeal in order to make the 1623 collection of plays, also known as the First Folio, obtainable online. With almost 1000 pages to digitise, the Sprint for Shakespeare target of £20,000 averages at £20 per page.

Once the project is completed, the volume will be available online in digital format at http://shakespeare.bodleian.ox.ac.uk, and will be accessible to anyone free of charge. Campaign leaders hope the website will become “a dynamic forum to celebrate Shakespeare” and “prepare for Oxford’s celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016”.

The First Folio included 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, published posthumously in an ambitious publishing project led by his fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell, many of which had not previously been published. Without it, there would have been no record of many of his most celebrated works, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and Measure for Measure. The Bodelian Libraries’ assert that “Quite simply, Shakespeare’s reputation in subsequent ages depends on this collection of his work.”

The launch of the campaign has received much notable support. Actress Vanessa Redgrave commented, “I am very happy to help the Bodleian Libraries raise funds so that the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays may be read and studied online; this will be a wonderful achievement.”

Stephen Fry has too publicly shared his enthusiasm for the project, noting, “First Folio as a phrase sounds so distant from our everyday lives, but this priceless and extraordinary collection of plays turned the world upside down (or should that be the right way up?) every bit as much as Newton was to do nearly 60 or so years later.

“The works of Shakespeare, now as much as ever, tell us what it is to be alive. The ambiguity, doubt, puzzlement, pain, madness and hilarity of existence had never been expressed so well and to this day never has. To bring the First Folio, the great authoritative publication, to everyone in the world via digitisation is as noble and magnificent a project as can be imagined and I whole-heartedly support the Bodleian and all those endorsing this marvellous enterprise.”

Sir Peter Hall, Founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, added, “The digitization of the Bodleian copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio is a project of huge importance.  It will provide an unrivalled opportunity for textual study not only for actors, directors and other theatre practitioners and their academic colleagues, but also for audiences whose love of the plays has remained undiminished over the centuries.”

Dr Sarah Thomas, Bodley’s Librarian said: ‘The Bodleian copy of the First Folio has a special place in the Library’s history.  Its pages are not only evidence of Shakespeare’s literary genius but are also a testimony of how the Bodleian built its collections over time.”

Shakespeare specialist Professor Jonathan Bate of Worcester College has also expressed his support for the campaign, calling the First Folio “the most important secular book in the history of the western world”.

He continued, “Every copy is a treasure of huge importance and, fascinatingly, because of the printing process in Shakespeare’s time, every copy has its own unique characteristics. There was a time when only advanced scholars, and people able to travel to the great libraries, had the opportunity to view the key copies of the Folio, but now the Internet has the capacity to make them available to everyone — the digitization of the Bodleian copy, with its strange and eventful history, is a great project.’

English third-year Hattie Soper added, “I think the endeavour is very worthwhile and the digitised First Folio will become a much-loved resource. As a facsimile it’s all the more precious because it’s relatively hard to come across Shakespeare’s plays in the original language. The vast majority of editions are modern translations, making the project particularly fresh and exciting.”

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