The First Folio
The book that saved half of Shakespeare's plays
The First Folio - the jewel in the crown of our special collections
The book known as the First Folio is the centrepiece of the library and archive’s collections and we look after three copies. Its full title is Mr. William Shakespeare's comedies, histories & tragedies, published according to the true originall copies and it is one of the two most important books in the English language (the other being the 1611 King James Bible). The culmination of several years’ work, it was the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays and was published in 1623 by two of Shakespeare’s colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. It is not known if Shakespeare was involved in planning it before he died but he did leave money in his will to Heminges and Condell for remembrance rings.
Without it, half of Shakespeare’s plays would have been lost as they were not printed before appearing in the Folio. Thirty-six plays are included and two plays were left out – Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen.
The copy shown in the image is number 1 in the library's accessions register. It is known as the Ashburnham copy as it was purchased from the collection of Bertram 4th Earl of Lord Ashburnham in 1898 at Sothebys.
It is likely that about 750 were printed – about 230 of these have survived and no two copies are identical because of the way in which it was printed. The book cost £1 bound or 15s. unbound. To put this in perspective, a Stratford schoolteacher at the time earned £20 per year.
This item is currently on display at Shakespeare's Birthplace in the Famous Beyond Words exhibition.