First Folio

Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies

Title page of the first impression (1623).
Author William Shakespeare
Cover artist Martin Droeshout
Country England
Language Early Modern English
Genre English Renaissance theatre
Publisher Edward Blount and William and Isaac Jaggard
Publication date
Late 1623
Pages 630

Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies is the 1623 published collection of William Shakespeare's plays. Modern scholars commonly refer to it as the First Folio.[1]

Printed in folio format and containing 36 plays (see list of Shakespeare's plays), it was prepared by Shakespeare's colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell. It was dedicated to the "incomparable pair of brethren" William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke and his brother Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery (later 4th Earl of Pembroke).

Although eighteen of Shakespeare's plays had been published in quarto prior to 1623, the First Folio is arguably the only reliable text for about twenty of the plays, and a valuable source text even for many of those previously published. The Folio includes all of the plays generally accepted to be Shakespeare's, with the exception of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the two lost plays, Cardenio and Love's Labour's Won.


The contents of the First Folio were compiled by Heminges and Condell;[2] the members of the Stationers Company who published the book were the booksellers Edward Blount and the father/son team of William and Isaac Jaggard. William Jaggard has seemed an odd choice by the King's Men, since he had published the questionable collection The Passionate Pilgrim as Shakespeare's, and in 1619 had printed new editions of ten Shakespearean quartos to which he did not have clear rights, some with false dates and title pages (the False Folio affair). Indeed, his contemporary Thomas Heywood, whose poetry Jaggard had pirated and misattributed to Shakespeare, specifically reports that Shakespeare was "much offended with M. Jaggard (that altogether unknown to him) presumed to make so bold with his name."[3]

Heminges and Condell emphasised that the Folio was replacing the earlier publications, which they characterised as "stol'n and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors", asserting that Shakespeare's true words "are now offer'd to your view cured, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he conceived them."

The paper industry in England was then in its infancy and the quantity of quality rag paper for the book was imported from France.[4] It is thought that the typesetting and printing of the First Folio was such a large job that the King's Men simply needed the capacities of the Jaggards' shop. William Jaggard was old, infirm and blind by 1623, and died a month before the book went on sale; most of the work in the project must have been done by his son Isaac.

Comparison of the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy in the first three editions of Hamlet, showing the varying quality of the text in the Bad Quarto, the Good Quarto and the First Folio

The First Folio's publishing syndicate also included two stationers who owned the rights to some of the individual plays that had been previously printed: William Aspley (Much Ado About Nothing and Henry IV, Part 2) and John Smethwick (Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet). Smethwick had been a business partner of another Jaggard, William's brother John.

The printing of the Folio was probably done between February 1622 and early November 1623.[5] The printer originally expected to have the book ready early, since it was listed in the Frankfurt Book Fair catalogue as a book to appear between April and October 1622.[6][7] The first impression had a publication date of 1623, and the earliest record of a retail purchase is an account book entry for 5 December 1623 of Edward Dering (who purchased two); the Bodleian Library, in Oxford, received its copy in early 1624 (which it subsequently sold for £24 as a superseded edition when the Third Folio became available in 1663/1664).[8]


The thirty-six plays of the First Folio occur in the order given below; plays that had never been published before 1623 are marked with an asterisk. Each play is followed by the type of source used, as determined by bibliographical research.[9]

(Some definitions are needed. The term "foul papers" refers to Shakespeare's working drafts of a play; when completed, a transcript or "fair copy" of the foul papers would be prepared, by the author or by a scribe. Such a manuscript would have to be heavily annotated with accurate and detailed stage directions and all the other data needed for performance, and then could serve as a "prompt-book", to be used by the prompter to guide a performance of the play. Any of these manuscripts, in any combination, could be used as a source for a printed text. On rare occasions a printed text might be annotated for use as a prompt-book; this may have been the case with A Midsummer Night's Dream. The label Qn denotes the nth quarto edition of a play.)

Table of Contents from the First Folio
Memorial to John Heminges and Henry Condell, editors of the First Folio, at Bassishaw, London

Troilus and Cressida was originally intended to follow Romeo and Juliet, but the typesetting was stopped, probably due to a conflict over the rights to the play; it was later inserted as the first of the Tragedies, when the rights question was resolved. It does not appear in the table of contents.


As far as modern scholarship has been able to determine,[10] the First Folio texts were set into type by five compositors, with different spelling habits, peculiarities, and levels of competence. Researchers have labelled them A through E, A being the most accurate, and E an apprentice who had significant difficulties in dealing with manuscript copy. Their shares in typesetting the pages of the Folio break down like this:

  Comedies Histories Tragedies Total pages
"A" 74 80 40 194
"B" 143 89 213 445
"C" 79 22 19 120
"D" 35 12 0 0 35 12
"E" 0 0 71 12 71 12

Compositor "E" was most likely one John Leason, whose apprenticeship contract dated only from 4 November 1622. One of the other four might have been a John Shakespeare, of Warwickshire, who apprenticed with Jaggard in 1610–17. ("Shakespeare" was a common name in Warwickshire in that era; John was no known relation to the playwright.)

The First Folio and variants

The First Folio (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

W. W. Greg has argued that Edward Knight, the "book-keeper" or "book-holder" (prompter) of the King's Men, did the actual proofreading of the manuscript sources for the First Folio. Knight is known to have been responsible for maintaining and annotating the company's scripts, and making sure that the company complied with cuts and changes ordered by the Master of the Revels.

Some pages of the First Folio – 134 out of the total of 900 – were proofread and corrected while the job of printing the book was ongoing. As a result, the Folio differs from modern books in that individual copies vary considerably in their typographical errors. There were about 500 corrections made to the Folio in this way.[11] These corrections by the typesetters, however, consisted only of simple typos, clear mistakes in their own work; the evidence suggests that they almost never referred back to their manuscript sources, let alone tried to resolve any problems in those sources. The well-known cruxes in the First Folio texts were beyond the typesetters' capacity to correct.

The Folio was typeset and bound in "sixes" – 3 sheets of paper, taken together, were folded into a booklet-like quire or gathering of 6 leaves, 12 pages. Once printed, the "sixes" were assembled and bound together to make the book. The sheets were printed in 2-page formes, meaning that pages 1 and 12 of the first quire were printed simultaneously on one side of one sheet of paper (which became the "outer" side); then pages 2 and 11 were printed on the other side of the same sheet (the "inner" side). The same was done with pages 3 and 10, and 4 and 9, on the second sheet, and pages 5 and 8, and 6 and 7, on the third. Then the first quire could be assembled with its pages in the correct order. The next quire was printed by the same method: pages 13 and 24 on one side of one sheet, etc. This meant that the text being printed had to be "cast off" – the compositors had to plan beforehand how much text would fit onto each page. If the compositors were setting type from manuscripts (perhaps messy, revised and corrected manuscripts), their calculations would frequently be off by greater or lesser amounts, resulting in the need to expand or compress. A line of verse could be printed as two; or verse could be printed as prose to save space, or lines and passages could even be omitted (a disturbing prospect for those who prize Shakespeare's works).[12]

Performing Shakespeare using the First Folio

Some Shakespeare directors and theatre companies producing Shakespeare believe that while modern editions of Shakespeare's plays, which are heavily edited and changed, are more readable, they remove possible actor cues found in the Folio, such as capitalization, different punctuation and even the changing or removal of whole words. Among the theatre companies that have based their production approach upon use of the First Folio was the Riverside Shakespeare Company, which, in the early 1980s, began a studied approach to their stage productions relying upon the First Folio as their textual guide. In the 1990s, the First Folio was reissued in a paperback format more accessible to the general public.[13]

Today, many theatre companies and festivals producing the works of Shakespeare use the First Folio as the basis for their theatrical productions and training programmes, including London's Original Shakespeare Company, a theatre company which works exclusively from cue scripts drawn from the First Folio.[14]

However, what are now the widely accepted versions of these plays include lines taken from the Quartos, which are not in the First Folio. For instance, small passages of Hamlet are omitted – among them Horatio's line "A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye", and his subsequent speech beginning with "In the most high and palmy state of Rome, / A little ere the mightiest Julius fell..." Also missing is Hamlet's encounter with the Norwegian captain from Fortinbras's army in Act IV, Scene IV, along with perhaps the most important cut, the soliloquy "How all occasions do inform against me". Romeo and Juliet omits the prologue, with its famous line about "star-crossed lovers".

Holdings, sales and valuations

The First Folio's original price is thought to have been around 15 shillings to 1 pound, the equivalent of about £95–£110 in 2006.[15] Like most books of that time the Folio may be sold unbound and buyers would have to spend more money to have it bound, with various embellishments.

It is believed that around 750 copies of the First Folio were printed, of which there are 234 known surviving copies.[16][17] The British Library holds 5 copies. National Library of Scotland holds a single copy, donated by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1949.[18] An incomplete copy is on display at the Craven Museum & Gallery in Skipton, North Yorkshire and is accompanied by an audio narrative by Patrick Stewart.[19][20] The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. holds the world's largest collection with 82 copies. Another collection (12 copies) is held at Meisei University in Tokyo, including the Meisei Copy (coded MR 774), said to be unique because of annotations by its reader.[21] While most copies are held in university libraries or museums, a few are held by public libraries. In the United States, New York Public Library has six copies with the Boston Public Library, Free Library of Philadelphia, The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and the Dallas Public Library each holding one copy.[22] The Huntington Library in Los Angeles County has one copy.[23] In Canada, there is only one known copy, located in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library of the University of Toronto.

The First Folio is one of the most valuable printed books in the world: a copy sold at Christie's in New York in October 2001 made $6.16 million hammer price (then £3.73m).[24]

Oriel College, Oxford, raised a conjectured £3.5 million from the sale of its First Folio to Sir Paul Getty in 2003.

The First Folio has been described by former Christie's specialist Stephen Massey as "the most documented book in the world".[25]

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, for the first time the Folger Shakespeare Library will allow a tour of some of its 82 First Folios for display in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Discoveries of previously unknown Folios

On 13 July 2006, a complete copy of the First Folio owned by Dr Williams's Library was auctioned at Sotheby's auction house. The book, which was in its original 17th-century binding, sold for £2.5 million hammer price, less than Sotheby's top estimate of £3.5 million.[26] This copy is one of only about 40 remaining complete copies (most of the existing copies are incomplete); only one other copy of the book remains in private ownership.

On 11 July 2008, it was reported that a copy stolen from Durham University, England, in 1998 had been recovered after being submitted for valuation at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., in the United States. The folio's value was estimated at up to £15 million.[27] Although the book, once the property of John Cosin the Bishop of Durham, was returned to the library, it had been mutilated and was missing its cover and title page.[28] The folio was returned to public display on 19 June 2010 after its twelve-year absence.[29] Fifty-three-year-old Raymond Scott received an eight-year prison sentence for handling stolen goods (he was acquitted of the theft of the copy).[25] A July 2010 BBC programme about the affair, Stealing Shakespeare, portrayed Scott as a fantasist and petty thief.[30] In 2013 Scott killed himself in his prison cell.[31]

In November 2014, a previously unknown First Folio was found in a public library in Saint-Omer, Pas-de-Calais in France, where it had lain for 200 years.[16][32] Confirmation of its authenticity came from Eric Rasmussen, of the University of Nevada, Reno, one of the world's foremost authorities on Shakespeare.[16][32] The title page and introductory material are missing.[32][33] The name "Neville", written on the first surviving page, may indicate that it once belonged to Edward Scarisbrick, who fled England due to anti-Catholic repression, attended the Jesuit Saint-Omer College, and was known to use that alias.[16] The only other known copy of a First Folio in France is in the National Library in Paris.[33]

In March 2016, Christie's announced that a previously unrecorded copy once owned by 19th-century collector Sir George Augustus Shuckburgh-Evelyn would be auctioned on 25 May 2016.[34]

In April 2016 another new discovery was announced, a First Folio having been found in Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute, Scotland. It was authenticated by Professor Emma Smith of Oxford University.[35] The Folio originally belonged to Isaac Reed.[36]


  1. More generally, the term "first folio" is employed in other appropriate contexts, as in connection with the first folio collection of Ben Jonson's works (1616), or the first folio collection of the plays in the Beaumont and Fletcher canon (1647).
  2. Shakespeare's First Folio, [[British Library, Undated]. Retrieved: 16 April 2011.
  3. Geneva, Lukas Erne, University of (2013). Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (Second Edition. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 26. ISBN 9781107029651.
  4. "Fame, Fortune, & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio", exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library, June 3 – September 3, 2011, curated by Anthony J. West and Owen Williams, with Melissa Cook; accessed 3 July 2011.
  5. Hinman, pp. 363–5.
  6. "First Folio Frankfurt 1622", 18 March 2011, I Love Shakespeare Blog; accessed 21 August 2011.
  7. Sotheby's, "The Shakespeare First Folio, 1623: The Dr. Williams's Library Copy", 13 July 2006; "Printing the First Folio" p. 13
  8. Smith 1939, pp. 257–264.
  9. G. Blakemore Evans, textual editor, The Riverside Shakespeare, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
  10. F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 113.
  11. Halliday, p. 390.
  12. Halliday, p. 319.
  13. The First Folio of Shakespeare, Introduction by Doug Mostin, Applause Books, 1995, p. vii.
  14. Patrick Tucker, Secrets of Acting Shakespeare: The Original Approach, (Routledge, 2002).
  15. "Bard's first folio fetches £2.8m". BBC. 13 July 2006. Retrieved 11 February 2007.
  16. 1 2 3 4 Schuessler, Jennifer (25 November 2014). "Shakespeare Folio Discovered in France". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  17. "Shakespeare first folio discovered at stately home on Scottish island". the Guardian. Retrieved 23 April 2016.
  18. "Shakespeare's First Folio - National Library of Scotland". National Library of Scotland. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland. 2016-04-20. Retrieved 2016-04-22.
  19. "Rare Shakespeare folio goes on display in Skipton". BBC. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  20. "Sir Patrick Stewart voiceover for Shakespeare first folio exhibition". Craven district council. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  21. "About Meisei Copy from the site of the university". Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  22. Anthony James West, "The Shakespeare First Folio: The History of the Book; Volume II: A New World Census of First Folios", Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 9780198187684
  23. "Huntington Library Catalog (record number b1508103)".
  24. "William Shakespeare's First Folio Sells for $6,166,000 at Christie's New York, Establishing a World Auction Record for any 17th Century Book". Christies. 8 October 2001. Retrieved 1 April 2008.
  25. 1 2 "County Durham man jailed over Shakespeare folio". BBC News. 2 August 2010. Retrieved 2 August 2010.
  26. Antiques Trade Gazette, 22 July 2006.
  27. "Man bailed over Shakespeare theft". BBC News. 11 July 2008. Retrieved 2 May 2010.
  28. MacKnight, Hugh (9 July 2010). "Raymond Scott guilty of handling stolen folio of Shakespeare's plays". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 July 2010.
  29. MacKnight, Hugh (19 June 2010). "Stolen Shakespeare folio is given its day in court". The Independent. London. Retrieved 31 July 2010.
  30. "Stealing Shakespeare, BBC One". The Arts Desk. 30 July 2010. Retrieved 2 August 2010.
  31. "Shakespeare folio dealer Raymond Scott killed himself". BBC News. 9 December 2013. Retrieved December 2, 2014.
  32. 1 2 3 "Shakespeare Folio found in French library". BBC News. 26 November 2014. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  33. 1 2 Rory Mulholland (25 November 2014). "Shakespeare First Folio discovered in French library". Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  34. Finnigan, Lexi (17 March 2016). "'Holy Grail' of Shakespeare's first Four Folios set to go on sale in London". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 17 May 2016.
  35. Coughlan, Sean (2016-04-07). "Shakespeare First Folio discovered on Scottish island - BBC News". BBC News. Retrieved 2016-04-07.
  36. "Priceless 400-year-old Shakespeare first edition discovered on Scottish island". Agence France-Presse. 2016-04-07. Retrieved 2016-04-07.


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