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Shakespeare’s First Folio – 400th anniversary display at IALS

Written by David Percik on behalf of IALS Library | 08 November 2023

Given Shakespeare’s influence on the English language as a whole, we thought it fitting to celebrate this event by showcasing material housed here at IALS

This November marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of William Shakespeare’s First Folio, thirty-six plays selected for inclusion by two of the members of the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company of actors. Given Shakespeare’s influence on the English language as a whole, we thought it fitting to celebrate this event by showcasing material housed here at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies centred on the great bard himself and the legal context of the time in which he was writing. It’s a rare opportunity to see some of the oldest material in our collection, and we hope it can help draw you into the rich history that William Shakespeare had a vital part in shaping. 

The publication of the First Folio coincided with that of several influential legal treatises in England. One particularly noteworthy example is the Institutes of the Lawes of England by Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), who was an English barrister, judge, and politician living in the same era as Shakespeare and who is regarded as one of the greatest jurists of Elizabethan and Jacobean times. Written in the late 1620s, Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes was widely recognised as a foundational document of the common law, and its impact extended far beyond England. The edition in the display, held by the IALS Library, is the fourth edition of the Institutes, published between 1639 and 1648.

Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge and the Inner Temple, Sir Edward Coke was called to the Bar in 1578. As a barrister, Coke took in many notable cases, including the prosecution led by Coke when he was the Attorney General against the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. After a successful legal career, Sir Edward Coke was eventually appointed as the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in 1606, one of the highest judicial offices in England at the time. 

Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes not only had a profound impact in England, but also exerted a lasting influence on the American legal system. In England, Coke’s detailed analysis of Magna Carta in the Institutes led Charles I to confiscate his papers and to ban the publication of the later parts of the Institutes, fearing the threat that Coke’s writings posed to his royal prerogatives.

In America, Coke was influential both before and after the American War of Independence. Coke’s legal theories were employed to justify the nullification of the Stamp Act 1765 that led to American independence, and his writings were instrumental in the composition of the third and fourth amendments to the United States Constitution. Coke’s influence even extends to modern times: for instance, Coke’s Institutes have been cited by the US supreme court in landmark cases such as Roe v. Wade (1973). 

One important legal treatise of early modern England that was published in the exact same year as Shakespeare’s First Folio is the Officium Vicecomitum, or The Office and Authoritie of Sheriffs, written by Michael Dalton (1564-1644), who was an English barrister and legal writer. Dalton studied at Trinity College, Cambridge and Lincoln’s Inn before he was called to the bar in 1589.

In 1618 Dalton published a legal work entitled The Countrey Justice for local magistrates. This treatise was popular and highly regarded among the local magistrates in his time, and it is an important source for legal historians of early modern England as it remained in circulation into the 18th century. Dalton’s legal career flourished after this publication, leading him to eventually become a bencher of Lincoln’s Inn.

David Percik, Information Resources Manager (with display by Katie Radford, Senior Library Assistant; and Alfred Ye, Graduate Trainee Library Assistant) The Institute of Advanced Legal Studies Library

First Folios at 400

Shakespeare's First Folio was first entered into the Stationers’ Register on this day (8th November) in 1623. To celebrate 400 years since this historic publication, the School of Advanced Study and Senate House Library are hosting an exciting programme of events and activity including a major new exhibition, Shakespeare’s First Folios: A 400-year journey which opens on the 21 November.

To view the full programme, visit: https://www.sas.ac.uk/shakespeares-first-folio-400