Shakespeare's First Folio: Did You Know...?

When I am acting as a docent for the Library's First Folio exhibit, I often find myself emphasizing one fact: The Folio marked the first time that 18 of Shakespeare's plays appeared in print, thus preserving half of his complete collection. When I talk with visitors, we celebrate the Folio for giving us the gifts of All's Well that Ends Well, The Winter's Tale, Macbeth, and numerous other plays that we have come to know as our own.

However, there is more to be said of Shakespeare's First Folio beyond that gift of preservation. Not only does the Folio contain an impressive number of plays, it also has amassed quite a collection of interesting facts regarding its production, history, and existence.

• John Heminge and Henry Condell, the persons responsible for the compilation and construction of the First Folio, were named as beneficiaries in Shakespeare's will. Shakespeare afforded 26 shillings and eight denarii to each to "buy them ringes" to wear in his remembrance. Heminge and Condell, however, conceived of an additional way to remember and memorialize their colleague. In publishing the complete collection of Shakespeare's dramatic works, they ensured that his legacy would endure for hundreds of years – "a live-long monument" as John Milton wrote in "An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramatic Poet, W. Shakespeare."

• Heminge and Condell likely gathered the text of the Folio from myriad sources. They possibly used handwritten manuscripts from Shakespeare himself, known as the "foul papers" because they were typically full of corrections, marginalia, and amendments. It is possible that the "fair copy," the cleaned-up, handwritten copy of the manuscript that was sold by the playwright to the theatrical troop, was part of their source material. The prompt book, small sheets of paper with an individual character's lines, could have informed the process, or Heminge and Condell might have drawn upon their own personal memories of the productions. None of that material remains available today.

• The first recorded purchase of Shakespeare's First Folio was by Edward Dering. He bought two First Folios. Dering's personal records and accounts show a vested interest in the theater, and he had also amassed an impressive literary collection. Dering's accounts demonstrate the Folio's cultural value, as his records show his propensity to purchase "social assets."

• Despite its social status, pages of the Folio have been used in interesting and shocking ways over the course of time. Loose pages were once used to wrap fish!

• Publishing in a folio format spoke to the status of the content of the publication. For poets and playwrights, folios were unheard of – with the exception of Ben Johnson. Johnson, while still alive, published his collection of writings in his own Folio, Workes of Benjamin Jonson. Critics joked at his inclusion of a play, writing "Pray tell me Ben, where doth the mystery lurke / What others call a play you call a worke."

• The First Folio is called the "First" because second, third, and fourth printings followed. The Second Folio was printed in 1632, the Third in 1663 or 1664, and the Fourth in 1685. Each subsequent publication was presented as more valuable, adding plays that are not credibly attributed to Shakespeare. First Folios were, at times, discarded and replaced by the Second. Notably, the Folger Library's first purchase of a Folio was a Fourth Folio.

• William Jaggard, owner of the shop where Shakespeare's First Folio was printed, had previously attempted to produce a complete collected works of Shakespeare on his own. It came to be known as the "False Folio" even though it is not printed in folio format. Heminge, Condell, and others successfully stopped the project and began a complete collection of their own, involving Jaggard in the printing.

Shakespeare's First Folio is a wonderful book in for preservation purposes alone. However, looking beyond the plays, one finds a book that is magnificent for many more reasons. The Folio contains 36 treasured plays, and its history is indelible.

By Danica Otten, Library intern