Very good … or starke naught? The University of Glasgow’s First Folio

In September 1856, the wealthy Glasgow insurance broker William Euing (1788-1874) received the latest acquisition for his growing library of musical books, Bibles and bibliographical treasures. It was a copy of the 1623 First Folio, sent to him from London by the (some say) notorious antiquarian, bookseller, literary scholar and Shakespearean editor James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (1820-1889).

The letter that Halliwell sent with the book makes entertaining reading:

I have much pleasure in sending you the first folio which is neither “ragged nor rotten” but for a low priced book in remarkably fine condition generally. I had three copies. For my best Mr Russell Smith gave me no less than one hundred & forty pounds. The present one sent you is my second best. My other although wanting title & all the preliminary leaves is as useful to me for working purposes as the best, & indeed in some respects more so as it is no such great consequence if it gets an ink blot …

Annotations within the University of Glasgow First Folio

What is so important and frankly enjoyable about our copy is that one of the copies that make it up was annotated by a contemporary owner who evidently saw the plays being performed in the late 1620s by Shakespeare’s very own company, the King’s Men. The names of the principal actors are accompanied by comments that seem to suggest that the annotator knew – or at least had seen – some of the actors. ‘Know’ is written in by the name of Robert Benfield and Joseph Taylor, ‘by eyewittnesse’ by that of John Lowin, and ‘by report’ underneath Richard Burbage. The annotater knew of William Ostler by ‘hearsay’, and ‘so too’ (i.e. also by hearsay) Nicholas Tooley, John Underwood, William Eccleston and Nathan Field. The name of William Shakespeare, which heads the list, is accompanied by the intriguing comment ‘Least for making’ – probably to be interpreted as meaning that Shakespeare acted in the plays least of all since he was busy writing and producing them.


The annotations continue in the first section of the book. Interspersed occasionally with leaves from another copy, the pages throughout ‘The Tempest’, ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ are heavily and consistently marked. The most obvious evidence of attentive reading is in frequent underlining and bracketing. Besides this, the notation ‘ap’ (possibly an abbreviation of ‘approbo’ i.e. ‘I approve’) is the reader’s key marginal device, used to highlight sections of particular interest. Much to our delight, the reader also occasionally adds comments to the text as well, showing us their appreciation (or otherwise) of the plays. The leaves have unfortunately been cropped in binding making some of the marginalia difficult to decipher, but there is enough to give us a sense of the annotator’s enjoyment of Shakespeare. A comment in the ‘Merry Wives’, for instance, accurately sums up Ford’s mistrust of his wife as being ‘a good jealous mans dilemma’. Best of all are the summary verdicts at the end each play: The Tempest is liked ‘pretty well’, but on the other hand ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ is ‘starke naught’; The Merry Wives of Windsor is lauded as ‘very good; light’. Alas, the copy changes again at this point, recommencing momentarily at the end of ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ (‘bon fort bon’) and making a brief reappearance for three leaves of ‘Love’s Labours Lost’. Thereafter, our annotated copy disappears, and although there are occasional marks and sporadic marginalia by later readers, there is nothing so rich as these early annotations.

Annotations within the University of Glasgow First Folio

Although many of Shakespeare’s plays had been first enacted some twenty five years before the production of the First Folio, these annotations may still be regarded as a fairly immediate reaction to them. To me, they are a thrilling and viscerally direct connection to Shakespeare, and I have always wondered if some counterpart pages from another perfected copy are ‘out there’.

The annotation “Lorenzo Cary” appears at the end of The Two Gentlemen of Verona

But who might this annotater have been? There is a huge clue in the name ‘Lorenzo Cary’ written in at the end of Act four, scene two of ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’. Lorenzo (1613-1642) was the son of Henry Cary (1575-1633), 1st Viscount Falkland and Lord Deputy of Ireland, and Elizabeth Cary (1585-1639), the writer renowned as ‘the first female author to write original drama in English’ (ODNB). The Carys were, by all accounts, a highly literate and cultured family, and it is easy to see how a copy of the First Folio would have been meat and drink to them. Lorenzo was one of ten children. One of his younger brothers, Patrick, was a poet. His elder brother, Lucius, (1609/10–1643) formed a formidable intellectual circle at Great Tew in Oxfordshire where he lived from 1632; he collected books, enjoyed plays and wrote poetry, even exchanging odes with Ben Jonson. Although the whole family were living in Ireland when the book was originally published, Elizabeth and three of her children returned to England in 1625 followed by the rest of the family in 1629 – a timeline that fits in nicely with the period that the annotated ‘known’ actors were still performing.


At what point and how the annotated First Folio left the ownership of the Cary family is not known. The next identified owner of our copy (or at least part of it) occurs well over a hundred years later in the shape of the Irish peer and MP Murrough O’Brien, fifth Earl of Inchiquin (afterwards Marquis of Thomond) of Taplow Court, Buckinghamshire (1726-1808) – as evidenced by two bookplates and an autograph written in at the start of ‘The Tempest’. According to Lee’s 1902 first census of copies, Inchiquin acquired the book in 1780, although try as I might, I can no longer find any evidence for this assertion. Although an aristocrat, like so many early owners of the First Folio, Inchiquin on the face of it does not seem to be an obvious lover of Shakespeare. A soldier and sometime politician, he seemed to spend most of his life chasing a peerage in an attempt to fend off penury. Described somewhat dubiously as a ‘happy fool’, his obituary in the Gentleman’s magazine refers to him as ‘a genial good fellow’ with the reputation of being ‘a six bottle man’. However, according to Lee again, he was also a friend of the Shakespearian editor, Edmond Malone, who edited the 1790 edition of Shakespeare’s works. Malone is known to have built up a large working library, and although his extra illustrated copy of the First Folio is now in the Bodleian Library (West 32), perhaps he was responsible for supplying Inchiquin with this copy. We will never know whether he read it, of course, although I like to think that some of its stains and splotches might have been caused by the careless and hazy handling of Inchiquin’s fifth or sixth bottle of claret.

Inchiquin died in 1808 at the age of 85.  What happened next to our First Folio will probably forever remain a mystery, but it must be at around this time that it was broken up and perfected with other dilapidated copies. This was a well-known practice amongst a myriad of later eighteenth and early nineteenth century booksellers, many of whom deliberately kept imperfect copies in stock specifically to plunder for replacement pages to ‘complete’ volumes.

We can, of course, examine our copy for further clues. The watermarks of ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘J Whatman’ in the five facsimile leaves at the beginning and end of the volume indicate that they were supplied from the first printed facsimile edition of the folio, produced in 1806-08 by E. and J. Wright of St John’s Square, London – so we might suppose that the perfection postdates 1808, the year Inchiquin died. It might have been one of the Thomas Rodds (the elder: 1763–1822; the younger: 1796–1849) who are both known to have dealt in First Folios. We can only speculate, but could a copy sold in Thomas Rodd the younger’s sale of 1849 be ours: lot 1345  ‘wanting the title, and four leaves at the end, soiled’? And, incidentally, in this same sale lot 1346 was a ‘small portion of the first edition, some of the plays complete’…

What we do know is that Halliwell sold this copy to Glasgow’s William Euing in 1856. A note by Halliwell on the fyleaf asserts that he had bought it only a year earlier in 1855 from John Haes, a London stockbroker, via the bookseller and printer James Evan Adlard. He then marketed it as the headline lot in his Sotheby’s sale of May 23 1856:  ‘a very valuable and important collection of Shaksperian & dramatic literature, including … [a] copy of the First Folio of 1623 annotated by a contemporary of the poet’. Our First Folio appears as lot 403 and the USP of the annotations are described in some detail. Although mention is made of five leaves being reprinted (and one being slightly defective), the made up nature of the book is glossed over. Halliwell does state, however, that the book is ‘precisely in the state in which it was purchased’, neatly distancing himself from any skulduggery to be discovered on closer examination. Caveat emptor!

Unfortunately, we have no record of how much Euing paid for this Frankenstein or even what his assessment of it was. Whatever he thought, his purchase was much to the University of Glasgow’s eventual benefit, when it was bequeathed along with his other 12,000 books (including a second folio and some quartos) in 1874. It is now regarded as one of the greatest treasures of Euing’s library and much beloved by students and researchers alike. Of course, as Matthew Shaw has already highlighted in his article on the Oxford Queen’s College copy, it is exactly those idiosyncratic Folios that aren’t ‘fine or perfect’ that can tell us so much about the transmission of this literary icon. The ultimately dubious nature of our copy, the intriguing annotations that offer a glancing connection with the past, and the unfathomable secrets of its history will probably enthrall us forever.

Julie Gardham
29 March 2023

Julie Gardham

Julie Gardham
Senior Assistant Librarian
University of Glasgow