What is Shakespeare’s “First Folio”?
The “First Folio” is the first printing of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, and it was first published in 1623 by Edward Blount and William and Isaac Jaggard. It was compiled by fellow actors and friends of Shakespeare, John Heminge and Henry Condell, after his death in 1616. Until the First Folio, 18 of the 36 plays had never been published, and had it not been for their compilation and organization of the book into Comedies, Tragedies, and Histories, we might not know some of Shakespeare’s most influential works, such as Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest, and all the popular cultural quotes and references that go with them: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” “Out, damned spot!” and “If music be the food of love, play on.”
It is believed there were 750 copies of the First Folio printed in 1623, and they would have cost around the equivalent of $165 for an unbound or $228 for a bound copy in today’s dollars. Only 235 of those 750 copies are known to survive today. The Folger Shakespeare Library holds the most copies, while others are privately owned and fiercely protected.
In his book Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger, published in 2014 by Johns Hopkins University Press, Stephen H. Grant details how the couple quietly collected and built the Folger Shakespeare Library, which now houses 82 First Folios, 275,000 books, and 60,000 manuscripts.
What makes the “First Folio” so valuable to collectors?
When talking about collecting Shakespeare, the First Folio is the pinnacle text. Actually titled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, the term ‘Folio’ refers to the size of the paper, which was large and generally saved for important documents. Folio sheets were folded in half once before being printed, resulting in two leaves or four pages. The First Folio has 454 leaves and is approximately 8 ½” x 13 ⅜” in size. With the ‘Quarto’ size, the sheets are folded two times to form four leaves, or eight pages, about 6 ¾” x 8 ½” in size.
Before the First Folio was printed in 1623, many of Shakespeare’s plays had been published in the ‘quarto’ size, but these are hard to authenticate as actually being Shakespeare’s work for multiple reasons, and scholars have generally dismissed them because of the inaccuracies.
The printing press was still relatively new when Shakespeare wrote his plays. The German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg began printing Bibles on his invention in 1450; previous to this, books were produced by hand, a painstaking and expensive task. The ‘Great Bible,’ the first legally sanctioned bible in English, was first printed in 1539. The Gutenberg Bible, one of the most valuable texts in the world, was first published in the 1450s, but like most religious texts of that time, it is in Latin.
Unlike religious material, plays were not considered important works of literature prior to Shakespeare’s life. They were written and performed by acting companies at a fast rate (remember, there was no television or movies), and actors took many liberties with the scripts. If a publishing house were to print a play, they did not pay the author for the ‘copyright’ – there was no such thing. They paid to get the work however they could, whether from the author, a discarded script from an actor, or the memory of an audience member, making the accuracy of the initial author’s work in these reproduced ‘quartos’ questionable. This is why you will find ‘good quarto’ and ‘bad quarto’ in reference to the early printings of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s sonnets were also passed around in handwritten copies, added to, and changed at will by the people sharing and distributing.
What to collect beyond the First Folio
Suppose you cannot acquire a First Folio for whatever reason, like the high price and near-impossible scarcity. There is also the “Second Folio,” a 1632 edition with 1,700 changes from the First Folio. The “Second Folio” was published by Thomas Cotes and includes an unsigned poem by John Milton.
The “Third Folio” was issued in 1663 and published by Philip Chetwinde. The “Third Folio” is considered one of the rarest of the Folios because many of the unsold copies of the text were destroyed in the Great London Fire of 1666.
The “Fourth Folio “(1685) is still a highly collectible piece, with multiple listings on Biblio for around a quarter million dollars. This Folio is taller than the rest because the publisher increased the paper height and lines per page to decrease the bulk of the book.
If you’re looking to start or expand a Shakespeare collection, there are many beautiful, fun, and interesting books out there to collect besides the big Folios. Here’s a look at a few editions.
Arthur Rackham Illustrations
Arthur Rackham was an English illustrator known for his lush and detailed illustrations in such classics as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In 1908 he illustrated A Midsummer Night’s Dream; in 1909, Tales from Shakespeare; and in 1926, The Tempest.
Roycroft Press editions
The Roycroft Press was founded in 1895 in East Aurora, New York, by Elbert Hubbard, who had visited England and was impressed with William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. When he returned, he searched for a publisher for his work and could not find one, so he created Roycroft Press, named after famous London Printers from the 1600s. The Roycrofters in America were instrumental in the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 1900s. Roycroft Press published several Shakespeare Books, including The Sonnets of Shakespeare in 1899, Hamlet in 1902, As You Like It in 1903, and King Lear in 1904.
The Franklin Library was a division of the Franklin Mint that published fine collectible classic books from 1973 until 2000. The Franklin Library produced full leather-bound titles, and in the 1970s and 1980s, it also offered quarter-bound and imitation leather binding. The Franklin Library titles are beautifully bound and illustrated, yet affordable.
Fine copies of Shakespeare’s plays from the Franklin Library can be found for $25 on Biblio. Among the more expensive offerings from this publisher are the complete seven-volume set of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays currently listed for $600-$850.
Also beautiful and valuable are the first edition, first printings of Greatest Histories of William Shakespeare (1982), and Tragedies (1975), both illustrated by Rockwell Kent, with editions available that are accented with 22k gold.
The Shakespeare Head Press
The Shakespeare Head Press was created by A.H. Bullen in 1904 to print Shakespeare’s work at Stratford-on-Avon. Bullen dreamed that Shakespeare’s complete works were printed and published in Shakespeare’s hometown, leading him to form the press. Inspired by William Morris, some equipment, such as compositor’s frames and typecases, came from Kelmscott Press. The first works The Shakespeare Head Press printed were the complete Works of William Shakespeare in Ten Volumes on vellum, published in 1904 in a limited edition of 1000 copies. This sought-after collectible is currently listed on Biblio at $49,500. There are many other more affordable Shakespeare Head Press books as well.
Golden Cockerel Press
Established in 1920 in Waltham Saint Lawrence, England, The Golden Cockerel Press was a fine press specializing in handmade limited editions of classic works featuring original illustrations.
The Golden Cockerel Press published Twelfth Night in 1932 with 29 wood engravings by Eric Ravillious. These editions were limited in number to 275 and are valuable collectibles listed for around $3,000. The press published the Poems and Sonnets by Shakespeare in 1960, a year before the press ceased publishing.
The Printing House of Leo Hart
Leo Hart Printing Company began in 1905 as a small printing press, creating coupons, letterhead, advertisements, and envelopes for businesses in the Rochester, New York area. The company later diversified into fine books as well, emphasizing the craftsmanship and artistry of their printing. In 1931 Leo Hart released a version of Venus and Adonis illustrated by 21 engravings by Rockwell Kent, limited to 1250 copies.
In addition to illustrating for Leo Hart Printing as well as the Franklin Library, Rockwell Kent also illustrated The Complete Works of Shakespeare, published by Doubleday in 1936.
Allied Newspapers Mini Collection
If you have limited room for your Shakespeare collection, consider The Works of William Shakespeare 40 Volume Miniature Set published by Allied Newspapers in the early 1930s. This 40-piece set comes with a custom bookshelf, which measures about 8 inches tall by a little over 7.5 inches wide (22,5 x 20 x 6,5 cm (HxWxD). Each of the volumes is just under 2″ x 1.5″ (5×3.5cm)
Highlights from the John Wolfson Rare Book Collection from the Firsts – London’s Rare Book Fair
Shakespeare in Print from Shakespeare Online
What is a Shakespeare First Folio? from Folger Shakespeare Library
Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.