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Rare Shakespeare document on show in the Dales after surviving 400 years

Jenny Hill from Craven Museum in Skipton with Shakespeare's 1st folio

It is 400 years since the first collection of William Shakespeare’s early works was published, and Dales folk have the chance to see one of only four on display worldwide.

The playwright’s early works were put together and published as a ‘first folio’ in 1623, with 750 thought to have been printed, but less than a third of that number are known to have survived worldwide.

That makes originals a literary rarity and hugely important because some of the content was not published in any other form.

An example with an intriguing history is on display at our Craven Museum in Skipton, in carefully managed conditions to protect its integrity for future generations.

Although it was gifted to the museum in 1936, it was mistakenly identified as a second folio, of much reduced rarity, a situation only corrected when it was examined by literary expert, Dr Anthony West, in 2002.

The folio has clearly had a chequered history and the condition of some pages suggest it spent some time without a binding.

Its history is only known from the point it was acquired by businessman and amateur playwright John James Wilkinson, whose family owned Primrose Mill at Embsay.

After his death, he left the document to his sister, who bequeathed it to the museum in 1936.

It is one of four first folios known to be on permanent public display in the world, alongside copies at The Folger in Washington, the New York Public Library and the British Library in London.

Executive member for culture and arts, Cllr Simon Myers, said: “It is wonderful that we have such a significant document on public display in North Yorkshire, especially in an important anniversary year.

“It is not only rare, but documents from that era will always need expert care to make sure they survive without deterioration and that is what our team provide, including regularly turning pages to prevent fading.

“That means it can stay on permanent public display, as one of the many fascinating artifacts the county’s museums have to offer.”

Born in Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire in 1564, Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s most distinguished dramatist.

While it is not known exactly when he started writing plays, it is thought that they were being performed in London by 1592. Shakespeare is likely to have written his final plays only a couple of years before his death in 1616.

It is believed that he wrote about 38 plays, including collaborations with other writers, as well as hundreds of poems and sonnets. Among his most famous works are Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet.

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