This month, an unusual birthday celebration will take place. November marks the 400th anniversary of one of the most famous books ever published: the First Folio of William Shakespeare, a playwright that generations have read and appreciated. But the creation of this book was not straightforward, and the people who compiled it had their own aims with its publication. The story of the First Folio is thus an enduring testimony not only to the genius of its author, but of the de facto editors and publishers whose decisions have shaped how people have read and experienced Shakespeare’s work for the past four centuries.
The book we know today as Shakespeare’s First Folio was published in 1623, seven years after his death. It is justifiably famous, both as a record of the work of a great playwright, and as a monumental and fascinating example of early 17th-century book history. Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, half had been published during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but 18 had not been printed at all. Without the Folio, we would not have some of the best-loved plays, including Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Tempest or Twelfth Night.
The Folio format was prestigious, and had historically been used for more “serious” works on history, theology, and exploration. These were large volumes, made of whole sheets of paper that were folded only once, in size perhaps akin to today’s “coffee table books.” Plays, in contrast, had almost always been produced in the smaller Quarto format, made up of full sheets of paper folded twice each to create a small, squarish book not unlike a modern paperback in scale. They were significantly cheaper to buy than the Folio (around sixpence each for a Quarto play, whereas the Folio cost 15 shillings), and were often read as unbound pamphlets by their owners and then discarded. Shakespeare was the first author to have a Folio dedicated exclusively to dramatic works, which had traditionally been considered too frivolous to merit this grand format.
The text was collated by two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, who edited it and supervised the printing. They appear in a list of the “Principall Actors” who performed in Shakespeare’s plays, alongside Richard Burbage, Will Kemp, and Shakespeare himself. The impressive scale of the Folio was intended not only as a memorial to the author (a friend of Heminges and Condell who left them money in his will), but also as a record of the work of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the King’s Men after 1603), the theatre company for which Shakespeare was a shareholder and which performed his plays.
Heminges and Condell divided the plays into comedies, tragedies and histories, a significant editorial decision that has shaped our idea of the Shakespearean canon. The addition of “histories” to two much older, classical play genres, was another means of elevating Shakespeare above his contemporaries, by casting him as a chronicler of English history. In the prefatory matter to the volume, Heminges and Condell tell readers that the previously printed Quarto editions of the plays were “maimed and deformed” versions, and that the Folio was the definitive work, which ‘cur’d’ the texts and made them “perfect of their limbes.”
But the claim that the Folio offered the definitive versions of each play was a marketing statement. The reality is more complicated. The sources used for the plays were mixed. Heminges and Condell described the Quarto texts disparagingly, but several of these older editions were in fact used to typeset the Folio. Otherwise, manuscripts were used. These could be authorial (Shakespeare’s own drafts, which do not survive today); scribal (written out by a professional scribe to maintain a record of the play text); or theatrical (promptbooks, which would have been altered to reflect the needs of performance, and may even reflect revivals edited by later hands). Where earlier Quarto texts were used for the Folio, the Folio text is sometimes less accurate because of mistakes introduced in the copying process.
Copyright in the early modern period did not resemble the concept today, and brought another level of complexity to the book’s creation. Shakespeare’s plays were written for the theatrical company that performed them, which was then free to sell the publishing rights. Publication of the First Folio involved the huge effort of buying up these copyrights from the various owners, or coming to agreements with them.
The most famous copyright problem encountered in the production of the Folio was that regarding Troilus and Cressida. It led the printers and editors to alter their plans twice, as they negotiated with another printer who had issued an edition of the play in 1609. The initial idea seems to have been to print Troilus and Cressida among the Tragedies, after Romeo and Juliet, but then it was dropped altogether. When this decision was finally reversed, printing was too far advanced, and a different location had to be found. As a result, in nearly all copies of the First Folio, Troilus and Cressida appears at the end of the Histories, after Henry VIII. It was also too late to add the title to the contents page (“Catalogue”), which therefore lists only 35 of the 36 plays included in the volume.
Ultimately, the Folio was a business venture for the consortium involved in its publication, who gambled on the popularity of the plays being sufficient to sell books that were expensive to produce. Although no records survive, experts believe that there would have been a maximum print run of 750 copies. The amount of variation between copies would have been notable. In addition to changes and corrections made to the text during the printing process, most 17th century books were sold unbound, and buyers would take them to a bookbinder after purchase. Only a few of these initial bindings survive today, with most copies having been rebound at least once since. No two copies of the Folio are exactly the same either in content or appearance, and this has only added to its fascination.
Two hundred thirty-five copies of the First Folio are still known to exist today, offering a window into the creation of a literary work that has endured over the centuries. In creating a book that was substantial in form and robust in its contents, Shakespeare’s friends and supporters not only were able to preserve his legacy, but to shape our understanding and enjoyment of his work today.