From The First Folio. Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

The "First Folio" was the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays. The printing of the First Folio in 1623 was a massive undertaking; it included thirty six plays, eighteen of which had never been published before*. The editors of the volume, Shakespeare's fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell*, arranged the plays in three genres*, Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies.

Had the First Folio not been published, we would have lacked three of Shakespeare's last plays (Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest), four tragedies (Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus), and two of the mature comedies (As You Like It and Twelfth Night).

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Henry Condell seems to have joined the Chamberlain's Men at about the same time as Shakespeare. By 1612 he had acquired shares in the Globe, and stayed with the company until 1623, the year of the First Folio. Shakespeare left him, Heminge and Richard Burbage each 26 shillings and 8 pence to buy a memorial ring. Condell died in 1627.

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They could have chosen many more: see the list of possible genres cited by Polonius as he describes the visiting players to Hamlet.

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Read about the texts* they used to make the First Folio.

The printers used various kinds of texts to set the type for the First Folio, at various removes from Shakespeare's original. The list would have included at least these:

  • Shakespeare's original "foul papers"
  • Shakespeare's fair copy of his foul papers
  • Fair copies made by the official scribe (Ralph Crane)
  • Fair copies made by others
  • The official prompt book
  • An earlier quarto
  • An earlier quarto, corrected by reference to a manuscript or the prompt book.

At each stage of copying, some errors may be corrected, but others will be introduced.

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Why did they publish it?

When Shakespeare was writing, plays were not really considered Literature (note the capital "L"), and hence were not published with the care that, for example, he felt his narrative poems were worth. But in 1616, the year of his death, Ben Jonson published his complete Works--and included his plays (which he called "poems").

It was probably this change in attitude that led Heminge and Condell to initiate the printing of the First Folio. In their dedication, "To the great variety of readers," they write:

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. . . [they mention the pirated quartos, "stolen and surreptitious copies"]. . . 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*.

This is the first mention of that facility in writing that led to the myth of Shakespeare as the poet of Nature, therefore unlettered-- and therefore not Shakespeare at all.

Ben Jonson wrote of the same fluency, but felt that Shakespeare should have written more carefully. Modern scholarship has established the likelihood that some plays at least may have been revised.

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(See an image of this document.)

Footnotes

  1. Shakespeare's almost lost plays

    Had the First Folio not been published, we would have lacked three of Shakespeare's last plays (Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest), four tragedies (Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus), and two of the mature comedies (As You Like It and Twelfth Night).

  2. Henry Condell

    Henry Condell seems to have joined the Chamberlain's Men at about the same time as Shakespeare. By 1612 he had acquired shares in the Globe, and stayed with the company until 1623, the year of the First Folio. Shakespeare left him, Heminge and Richard Burbage each 26 shillings and 8 pence to buy a memorial ring. Condell died in 1627.

  3. Pick a genre, any genre

    They could have chosen many more: see the list of possible genres cited by Polonius as he describes the visiting players to Hamlet.

  4. A choice of sources

    The printers used various kinds of texts to set the type for the First Folio, at various removes from Shakespeare's original. The list would have included at least these:

    • Shakespeare's original "foul papers"
    • Shakespeare's fair copy of his foul papers
    • Fair copies made by the official scribe (Ralph Crane)
    • Fair copies made by others
    • The official prompt book
    • An earlier quarto
    • An earlier quarto, corrected by reference to a manuscript or the prompt book.

    At each stage of copying, some errors may be corrected, but others will be introduced.

  5. "His mind and hand went together"

    This is the first mention of that facility in writing that led to the myth of Shakespeare as the poet of Nature, therefore unlettered-- and therefore not Shakespeare at all.

    Ben Jonson wrote of the same fluency, but felt that Shakespeare should have written more carefully. Modern scholarship has established the likelihood that some plays at least may have been revised.