Share this page

1616 was only the beginning: Shakespeare's Folios

The first recordings of Shakespeare's works, called Folios, reveal important aspects of his life and times.

Victoria Joynes
Books

This year we are marking 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare. This does not mean that we are declaring a year of mourning, however; it is a chance to celebrate the ever-developing legacy of Shakespeare and consider everything that he has left behind.

Title page from the Ashburnham First Folio, 1623.
Title page from the Ashburnham First Folio, 1623.

It seems fitting to begin with Shakespeare's works and how they were preserved. This commenced, of course, in the form of the First Folio which was published in 1623. Or, to give it the full title:

Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. Published according to the true originall copies.

The collection was brought together by two of Shakespeare's friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, and printed 7 years after Shakespeare's death. Without the First Folio, half of Shakespeare's plays would have been lost, as they had not previously been published in quarto form. Heminges and Condell wanted to put forward the best possible version of the plays, so they used original prompt books, quartos, and original notes to collate the final collection. 36 plays are included in the First Folio, including the first good texts of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V, and Henry VI parts 2 and 3. A different version of Hamlet, which had already appeared in a 'good' quarto, was also included, . Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen are left out; Troilus and Cressida is not on the contents page but is in the book. Presumably, it was included at the last minute  after copyright problems. This was the first folio to exclusively contain plays.

Without the First Folio these plays would have been lost:

All's Well That Ends Well
Antony and Cleopatra
As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors
Coriolanus
Cymbeline
Henry VI, Part One
Henry VIII (All is True)
Julius Caesar
King John
Macbeth
Measure for Measure
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Timon of Athens
Twelfth Night
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Winter's Tale

From the Wheler First Folio Page 277. The Winter’s Tale, Title page.
From the Wheler First Folio Page 277. The Winter’s Tale, Title page.

The plays were arranged into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. Between 750 and 1000 copies were printed and about 230 of these have survived. Each copy is unique due to the way that they were printed, as corrections were made during the printing process and no pages were discarded. They each contain their own mistakes, and no copy contains all pages in their final state. They were sold for £1, if bound (this amount of money would buy 44 loaves of bread!), and 15s, if unbound. In our library, we look after three copies of the First Folio, all of which were rebound in the nineteenth century: the Ashburnham Folio, the Wheler Folio, and the Royal Shakespeare Company's Folio. 

Ashburnham First Folio 1623
Ashburnham First Folio 1623

Very few Folios have their original title page. Our copies now have facsimile pages, as the page featuring the Droeshout portrait was popularly removed in the 18th and 19th centuries and displayed elsewhere. By the late 18th century, demand was growing for owning a complete folio, so defective copies were often broken up to fill in gaps in owners' copies. It became common for owners to use a copyist, the most successful being John Harris (c.1790-1872), who hand-copied in pen and ink the exact typography and engravings within books. He often did not know his own work from the original when he had finished! The title page of our copies of the First Folio are his copies. Often, previous owners have annotated their original pages with pictures of hands pointing at phrases they particularly like or giving instructions such as "stop" and "go on", suggesting that they have been used in readings. There is something pleasing about seeing that they have been used in this way, although annotating these books is clearly rather frowned upon nowadays!

Heminges and Condell included a message "To the Great Variety of Readers" at the beginning of the book:

To the great variety of Readers...from the Ashburnham First Folio, 1623
To the great variety of Readers, from the Ashburnham First Folio, 1623

"From the most able, to him that can but spell: There you are number'd. We had rather you were weighed. Especially, when the fate of all books depends upon your capacities ; and not on your heads alone, but of your purses. ... And though you be a Magistrate of wit, and sit on the stage at Black-Friers, or the Cock-pit to arrange plays daily, know, these plays have had their trial already, and stood out all appeals; and do now come forth quitted rather by a Decree of Court, then any purchas'd Letters of commendation.

It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been wished, that the Author himself had liv'd to have set forth, and overseen his own writings; but since it hath been ordained otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envy his Friends, the office of their care, and pain, to have collected and published them; and so to have publish'd them, as where (before) you were abus'd with diverse stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters, that expos'd them: even those, and now offer'd to your view cur'd, and perfect of their limbs; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceived the[m]. Who, as he was a happy imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers. ... Read him, therefore; and again, and again: and if you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him."

William Shakespeare also appears at the top of the list of actors, as another tribute to him.

Ashburnham First Folio, 1623
Ashburnham First Folio, 1623

There is so much more to say about the First Folio but before you know it, in 1632 the Second Folio comes along!

Shakespeare's Second Folio, 1632
Shakespeare's Second Folio, 1632

The Second Folio, 1632

Nine years after the First Folio, the Second Folio was printed, which reflected the continuing interest in the playwright's work. It contains the same plays as the First Folio, but was also the first attempt at a systematic 'edit' of Shakespeare's plays.

Contents page and the title page for The Tempest from the Second Folio, 1632
Contents page and the title page for The Tempest from the Second Folio, 1632

This time, all of the plays contained are listed on the contents page. Some improvements were made: for example, the French lines in Henry V were improved, but the book was badly printed and there did not seem to be much proof-reading, so it contained many typographical errors. In total, there are 1700 modifications to update the language. Entrances and exits of characters were added in the Second Folio, and it contains the first work by John Milton in print, entitled An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet W. Shakespeare on the effigies page. He wrote it when he was 22 and it was added to the other poems and dedications from the First Folio, including Ben Johnson's poem.

The Third Folio, 1664

Shakespeare's Third Folio, 1664
Shakespeare's Third Folio, 1664

Full title: Mr. William Shakespear's comedies, histories, and tragedies. Published according to the true original copies. The third impression. And unto this impression is added seven playes, never before printed in folio. viz. Pericles Prince of Tyre. The London prodigall. The history o Thomas Ld. Cromwell. Sir John Oldcastle Lord Cobham. The Puritan widow. A York-shire tragedy. The tragedy of Locrine. 1664.

Ten years after the publishing of the Second Folio, Civil War broke out and the London theatres were closed. When the English monarchy was restored and Charles II came to the throne in 1660 the theatres reopened and Shakespeare's plays began to be performed again. This was when the third impression of the Folio was produced, the first Shakespearean publication since the Restoration. The Great Fire of London in 1666 meant that a significant number of copies were destroyed.  The Stationer’s shops and print shops were lost in the fire.  Many booksellers placed their stocks in the crypt of St. Faith’s beneath the choir of St. Paul’s – the flaming roof of the cathedral broke through the sealed vault and the books are said to have burned for a week. This makes the Third Folio the rarest of the Folios.

The London Prodigal in the Third Folio, 1664
The London Prodigal in the Third Folio, 1664

There were 943 editorial changes to this edition, 300 of which are still accepted today. It was largely free from typographical errors, although occasionally words were missed out unintentionally. Seven plays were added to the Third Folio:

Pericles Prince of Tyre
The London Prodigal
The History of Thomas Lord Cromwell
Sir John Oldcastle
Lord Cobham
The Puritan Widow
A Yorkshire Tragedy
The Tragedy of Locrine

Of these, Pericles has since been established among Shakespearean canon, while the other six plays are now considered apocryphal.

The Fourth Folio, 1685

Fourth Folio

All of the plays that featured in the Third Folio were included in the Fourth Folio. It featured more modern spelling and punctuation, and the style of printing changed with text being larger. In short, it looked more modern.

Fourth Folio

The Folios marked the beginning of preserving all of Shakespeare's plays (plus some extras in the third and fourth). By just looking at the copies that we have, you can tell how those that owned them started to use them for their own performances and treasured them. They also serve as a monument and a great tribute to the man himself. 

With thanks to Madeleine Cox, many notes written by colleagues past and present, and:

Murphy, Andrew (2003) Shakespeare in Print: a history and chronology of Shakespeare publishing. Cambridge University Press

West, Anthony James, (2001) The Shakespeare First Folio: the history of the Book. Oxford University Press