Soon, you'll be able to read (and touch!) a centuries-old Shakespeare edition at Western University

It’s only just November, but Christmas has come early for Shakespeare fans at Western University. The Western Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections has just acquired a copy of Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio that dates back to 1685.

Western University has just acquired a copy of Shakespeare's Fourth Folio that dates back to 1685

Western University has a special new addition to its library: a rare edition of Shakespeare's plays that dates back to 1685. (Submitted)

It's only November, but Christmas came early this week for Shakespeare fans at Western University.

The Western Libraries' Archives and Special Collections has just acquired a copy of Shakespeare's Fourth Folio that dates back to 1685.

The artifact was donated by London-based doctor Robert Luton, who said in a news release that he began collecting antique manuscripts after travelling to the U.S. and Europe with the London Opera Guild. 

"After years of cherishing a Fourth Folio, I felt that Western students might now be inspired as I was to learn about such a literary giant! Shakespeare is as relevant today as he was then," said Luton. 

Robin Keirstead (left) is pictured with James Purkis of the Western English department. (Submitted)

The Fourth Folio contains 43 of the Bard's plays—although some of those may have been written by other authors, said Robin Keirstead, Western University archivist. 

"We now are pretty well sure that six of them weren't Shakespeare's work, but they were attributed to Shakespeare," he said.

It's the fourth collected edition of Shakespeare's plays in "folio" format, which distinguishes the book's large pages from the pamphlet-like "quatros" that were published during his lifetime.

Each folio included slight editorial changes—for instance, the six faux-Shakespeare plays were first included in the Third Folio, and also made their way into the fourth, said Keirstead. 

What's it worth?

The Tragedy of Hamlet is one of the plays included in Shakespeare's Fourth Folio. (Submitted)

Although the First Folio has historically been considered more valuable simply because it's the first, Keirstead said that standard may be changing. 

"You might think, 'Oh it's the fourth one, it didn't even make the podium,' but in this case the Fourth Folio is actually the text that was subsequently used for future editions of Shakespeare's plays," he said.

Keirstead said he believes that Western's new Fourth Folio is one of only three in Canada; the other two are housed at McGill University.

Although he declined to comment on how much Western's Fourth Folio is worth, the Antiques Trade Gazette reported that a similar edition sold for £38,000 at auction last year, which is almost $65,000 CAD.

No 'white glove' treatment necessary

Although Robin Keirstead is seen here wearing gloves, he says that clean hands will suffice for most visitors. (Submitted)

Don't be intimidated by the artifact's age and price: Keirstead said that members of the public are welcome to visit the archives and turn the Fourth Folio's pages for themselves.

The visit would be supervised by a library staff member, but no white gloves are necessary, said Keirstead. Clean hands are enough, and gloves can actually increase the risk of tearing the book's delicate pages.

"You can just imagine trying to read a newspaper while wearing cotton gloves—it's not the easiest thing to do," he said.

Although many archival materials are now published online, Keirstead said having a physical copy of the Fourth Folio helps students appreciate what it would have been like to read a Shakespeare play back in the 17th century.

"You're seeing how it was printed, how different plays were laid out and it gives you more of the sense of the experience of reading Shakespeare then."

See it for yourself

The Fourth Folio will be shown for the first time at Wordsfest London on November 4.

The event takes place at Museum London, and will also feature a talk by M.J. Kidnie, a Shakespeare expert at Western University.

About the Author

Paula Duhatschek


Paula Duhatschek is an associate producer and reporter with CBC London. You can reach her at