Share this page

Shakespeare's First Folio

Learn more about the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, published in 1623

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

The book often referred to as The First Folio was published in 1623, 7 years after the death of William Shakespeare. It's a collection of 36 of Shakespeare's works and was brought together by two of his friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell under the full title of:

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

As a tribute to their friend, Heminges and Condell wanted to put forward the best possible version of Shakespeare's plays, so they used original prompt books, quartos, and original notes to collate the final collection. 

This was the first printed folio to exclusively contain plays, including the first good texts of The Merry Wives of WindsorHenry Vand Henry VI Part 2 and Henry VI Part 3. A different version of Hamletwhich had already appeared in a 'good' quarto, was also included. Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen are left out, while Troilus and Cressida does feature, despite not being listed on the contents page. Presumably, it was included at the last minute after copyright problems. 

Without the First Folio, half of Shakespeare's plays would have been lost to us today, as they had not previously been published in quarto form. These plays are as follows

The plays were arranged into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. Between 750 and 1,000 copies were printed and about 230 of these have survived. Corrections were often made during the printing process and no pages were discarded, so each copy is unique. This has been known to come in handy for identifying and recovering a stolen copy of the First Folio. They each contain their own mistakes, and no copy contains all pages in their final state. In 1623 they were sold for £1 if bound (enough to buy 44 loaves of bread), and 15 shillings if unbound. 

Ashburnham First Folio 1623
Ashburnham First Folio 1623

First Folios in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust library

In our library at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust 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

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 rare books is clearly more 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

"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.

This is where the story began