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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

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. 

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

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.

Shakespeare's Second Folio, 1632
Shakespeare's 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. In Ben Jonson's  dedicatory poem, "To the memory of my beloved, The Author, Mr.  Mr. William Shakespeare: and what he hath left us", appended to the First Folio, Jonson says that Shakespeare was "not of an age, but for all time". He wrote it when he was 22 and it was added to the other poems and dedications from the First Folio, including Ben Jonson'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, the Good 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 Shakespearian 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 Shakespearian 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.

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