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Shakespeare First Folio from Catholic college to be exhibited in London

Actor Mark Rylance inspects the First Folio with Dr Farah Karim-Cooper, the head of higher education at the Globe, Francois Decoster, the mayor of Saint-Omer, and Dr Remy Cordonnier, the head of the ancient books collection at Saint-Omer public library (PA)

A recently discovered First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays will be exhibited next year – the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – at the Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank.

The First Folio was discovered last November in a library in the small town of Saint-Omer, near Calais in northern France. A librarian came across it when he was preparing an exhibition of links between the area and England.

During the Elizabethan and Jacobean period many English Catholics escaped to France, and a college at Saint-Omer gave a Catholic education to English boys. The college was expelled from France in 1762 and moved first to Belgium and then in 1794 to Stonyhurst in Lancashire, where it remains today.

A spokesman for Stonyhurst College said: “Many precious medieval artefacts, illuminated manuscripts and books were taken with them, and survive at Stonyhurst to this day, but it seems that a slightly scruffy and dog-eared First Folio was overlooked and left behind.”

Some of the college’s books, including a 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, ended up in the town library in Saint-Omer. The presence of the First Folio at the Catholic college indicates, if nothing else, that Shakespeare’s work was well-regarded by Catholics at the time.

The First Folio, containing the text of nearly all Shakespeare’s plays, was compiled by the playwright’s friends and published in 1623, seven years after his death. Entitled “Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies”, it is the only source of a number of his plays, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar and As You Like It. Although over a quarter of the 800 copies have survived – this is the 233rd known copy – it is one of the rarest and most valuable books in the world.

This appears to have been a working copy of the book. Handwritten stage directions and alterations in Henry IV suggest that it was used in the performance of plays at Saint-Omer College, which had a reputation for well-attended drama productions. In one scene the word “hostess” is changed to “host” and “wench” to “fellow”, perhaps indicating that a female character was turned into a male.

The Saint-Omer First Folio will be put on display at the Globe Theatre for two months from July 2016.

Having recently opened the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe is now actively planning its own library and archive on site, on London’s Bankside. Once the library is complete it will be gifted an important collection of rare and valuable volumes, including its own First Folio and Quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays. A spokesman for the Globe said that this would cement the theatre’s reputation as the first point of reference for teaching, research and interpretation of Shakespeare in performance.