The First Folio is the name commonly given to the 1623 collection entitled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories Tragedies. The book contains 36 plays, a great many of which had never been published prior to 1623, which makes The First Folio an extremely important document, as it represents the only original source for all subsequent printings/performances of many of Shakespeare's works, such as The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of The Shrew, Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.
Counting this new addition, there are only 233 first edition copies of this book left in the world, and each have small textual variations that shed new light on Shakespeare's writing style, creative process and (possibly) his personal life.
The book was discovered in the public library of Saint-Omer, a small town near Calais. Prior to this, it had been held in a Jesuit college in the town. It was moved to the library following The French Revolution, which ended in 1799.
In addition to being a major literary event in its own right, the discovery of the book has sparked new debates as to The Bard's religious affiliation.
For over 150 years, some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare had links to secret Catholic sects that were outlawed (and severely punished) in the 16th and early 17th centuries.
Elizabethan England was officially a Protestant country and Catholics were brutally suppressed under this regime. Proponents of this theory cite examples in Shakespeare's writing (in particular King Richard The Second) and the presence of the mysterious William Shakeshafte at the home (and later in the last will and testament) of Alexander Hoghton, a known underground Catholic.
This previously unknown First Folio is thought to have made its way to France in the possession of Edward Scarisbrick, a well-known English Catholic who is believed to have studied at Saint-Omer in the 1630's. Scarisbrick was known to go by the name Nevill – and this book is inscribed with the same name.
The Jesuit College that originally owned the book sheltered Catholic exiles and also trained Englishmen who wished to become priests. Today, the institution still exists, although it has been relocated to Lancashire.
Other works of Shakespeare have also been discovered in the Jesuit College at Douai, Northern France.
Of course, this evidence alone merely proves that English exiles enjoyed reading Shakespeare. As Dr. Martin Wiggins, a senior fellow at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-Upon-Avon told The Independent, “He was admired and studied by English Catholics. We already knew that. Now we have more evidence. That doesn't mean that Shakespeare was himself a Catholic sympathiser,”
The book will be put on display in Saint-Omer as part of an exhibition of old English texts, something that is expected to draw tourism from interested parties.
Dr. Wiggins has also suggested that the copy, which has been annotated with stage directions by an unknown party, probably represents the earliest known school production of Shakespeare.