First Folio

First Folio
Title page William Shakespeare's First Folio 1623.jpg
Author(s) William Shakespeare
Cover artist Martin Droeshout
Country Kingdom of England
Language Early Modern English
Genre(s) English Renaissance theatre
Publisher Edward Blount and William and Isaac Jaggard
Publication date Late 1623
Pages 900

Mr. William Shakespeares 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 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 and 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. The Jaggards were printers as well as booksellers, an unusual but not unprecedented combination. 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). The paper industry in England was then in its infancy and the quantity of quality rag paper for the book was imported from France.[3] 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. At any rate, 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 actual printing of the Folio was probably done between February 1621 and early November 1623.[4] 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.[5][6] 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 1664).[7]


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 a *. Each play is followed by the type of source used, as determined by bibliographical research.[8]

[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.]

Table of Contents from the First Folio
  • 15 King John * – uncertain: a prompt-book, or "foul papers."
  • 16 Richard II – typeset from Q3 and Q5, corrected against a prompt-book.
  • 17 Henry IV, Part 1 – typeset from an edited copy of Q5.
  • 18 Henry IV, Part 2 – uncertain: some combination of manuscript and quarto text.
  • 19 Henry V – typeset from Shakespeare's "foul papers."
  • 20 Henry VI, Part 1 * – likely from an annotated transcript of the author's manuscript.
  • 21 Henry VI, Part 2 – probably a Shakespearean manuscript used as a prompt-book.
  • 22 Henry VI, Part 3 – like 2H6, probably a Shakespearean prompt-book.
  • 23 Richard III – a difficult case: probably typeset partially from Q3, and partially from Q6 corrected against a manuscript (maybe "foul papers").
  • 24 Henry VIII * – typeset from a fair copy of the authors' manuscript.
  • 25 Troilus and Cressida – probably typeset from the quarto, corrected with Shakespeare's "foul papers."
  • 26 Coriolanus * – set from a high-quality authorial transcript.
  • 27 Titus Andronicus – typeset from a copy of Q3 that might have served as a prompt-book.
  • 28 Romeo and Juliet – in essence a reprint of Q3.
  • 29 Timon of Athens * – set from Shakespeare's foul papers or a transcript of them.
  • 30 Julius Caesar * – set from a prompt-book, or a transcript of a prompt-book.
  • 31 Macbeth * – probably set from a prompt-book.
  • 32 Hamlet – one of the most difficult problems in the First Folio: probably typeset from some combination of Q2 and manuscript sources.
  • 33 King Lear – a difficult problem: probably set mainly from Q1 but with reference to Q2, and corrected against a prompt-book.
  • 34 Othello – another difficult problem: probably typeset from Q1, corrected with a quality manuscript.
  • 35 Antony and Cleopatra * – possibly "foul papers" or a transcript of them.
  • 36 Cymbeline * – possibly another Ralph Crane transcript, or else the official prompt-book.

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,[9] 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" 35½ 0 0 35½
"E" 0 0 71½ 71½

Compositor "E" was most likely one John Leason, whose apprenticeship contract dated only from November 4, 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 cuts and changes ordered by the Master of the Revels were complied with.

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.[10] 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 forms, 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 before-hand 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).[11]

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 theater 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.[12]

Today, many theatre companies and festivals producing the works of Shakespeare use the First Folio as the basis for their theatrical productions and training programs, including London's Original Shakespeare Company, a theatre company which works exclusively from cue scripts drawn from the First Folio.[13]

However, the First Folio does not contain every word of the plays. 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".

Holdings, sales, and valuations

The First Folio's original price was 1 pound, the equivalent of about £95–£110 or US$190 to $220 in 2006.[14] Like most books of that time the Folio was sold unbound and buyers would spend another pound or two to have it bound in leather, with various embellishments.

It is believed that around 750 copies of the First Folio were printed. The most recent census (1995–2000) records 228 still in existence. The British Library holds the following copies: 1st impression (1623) – 2 copies; 2nd impression (1632) – 5 copies; 3rd impression (1663) – 1 copy, total 8 copies. 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, Japan, including the Meisei Copy (coded MR 774), said to be unique because of annotations by its reader.[15]

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 $6.16m hammer price (then £3.73m).[16]

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

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.[17] 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 Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., in the United States. The folio's value was estimated at up to £15 million.[18] Although the book, once the property of John Cosins the Bishop of Durham, was returned to the library, it has been mutilated and is missing its cover and title page.[19] The folio was returned to public display on 19 June 2010 after its 12 year absence.[20] Raymond Scott was jailed for eight years for handling stolen goods (he was acquitted of the theft of the copy).[21] A July 2010 BBC programme about the affair, Stealing Shakespeare, portrayed Scott as a fantasist and petty thief.[22]


  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. ^ "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.
  4. ^ Hinman, pp. 363–5.
  5. ^ "First Folio Frankfurt 1622", 18 March 2011, I Love Shakespeare Blog; accessed 21 August 2011.
  6. ^ Sotheby's, "The Shakespeare First Folio, 1623: The Dr. Williams's Library Copy", 13 July 2006; "Printing the First Folio" p. 13
  7. ^ Robert M. Smith (July 1939). "Why a First Folio Shakespeare Remained in England". The Review of English Studies 15 (59): 257–264. 
  8. ^ G. Blakemore Evans, textual editor, The Riverside Shakespeare, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
  9. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 113.
  10. ^ Halliday, p. 390.
  11. ^ Halliday, p. 319.
  12. ^ The First Folio of Shakespeare, Introduction by Doug Mostin, Applause Books, 1995, p. vii.
  13. ^ Patrick Tucker, Secrets of Acting Shakespeare: The Original Approach, (Routledge, 2002).
  14. ^ "Bard's first folio fetches £2.8m". BBC. 13 July 2006. Retrieved 11 February 2007. 
  15. ^ About Meisei Copy from the site of the university
  16. ^ "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. 
  17. ^ Antiques Trade Gazette, 22 July 2006.
  18. ^ "Man bailed over Shakespeare theft". BBC News. 11 July 2008. Retrieved 2 May 2010. 
  19. ^ MacKnight, Hugh (9 July 2010). "Raymond Scott guilty of handling stolen folio of Shakespeare's plays". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 July 2010. 
  20. ^ MacKnight, Hugh (19 June 2010). "Stolen Shakespeare folio is given its day in court". The Independent (London). Retrieved 31 July 2010. 
  21. ^ "County Durham man jailed over Shakespeare folio". BBC News. 2 August 2010. Retrieved 2 August 2010. 
  22. ^ "Stealing Shakespeare, BBC One". the arts web. 30 June 2010. Retrieved 2 August 2010. 


  • Sotheby's, The Shakespeare First Folio, 1623: The Dr. Williams's Library Copy, 13 July 2006; research by Peter Selley and Dr. Peter Beal.
  • Greg, W. W. The Shakespeare First Folio: Its Bibliographical and Textual History. London, Oxford University Press, 1955.
  • Hinman, Charlton. The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio. Oxford, the Clarendon Press, 1963.
  • Pollard, Alfred W. The Foundations of Shakespeare's Text. London, Oxford University Press, 1923.
  • Walker, Alice. Textual Problems of the First Folio. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1953.
  • Willoughby, Edwin Eliott. The Printing of the First Folio of Shakespeare. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1932.

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