The First Folio is the first collected edition of William Shakespeare's plays, collated and published seven years after his death in 1623.
The first record of Shakespeare's career as an actor and playwright in London is dated 1592, by which time he was reasonably well established. It is believed his London career began some time between 1585 and 1592.
He wrote around 37 plays, 36 of which are contained in the First Folio. Most of these plays were performed in the Globe, an open-air playhouse built on London’s Southbank in 1599. As none of Shakespeare's original manuscripts survive (except, possibly, Sir Thomas More, which Shakespeare is believed to have revised) we only know his work from printed editions.
Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, 17 were printed in Shakespeare's lifetime in various good and bad quarto editions, while 19 were not printed in his lifetime. Only one play was printed before its appearance in the First Folio, but this was after Shakespeare’s death. It is this fact that makes this collection item so important, because 18 of the plays had not appeared in print before the First Folio and so would have been lost were it not for the First Folio.
The text was collated by two of Shakespeare's fellow actors and friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who edited it and supervised the printing. As the first compilation of the plays, and in an attempt to produce an authoritative text, they divided the plays into comedies, tragedies, and histories. This editorial decision has come to shape our idea of the Shakespearean canon.
In order to produce as authoritative a text as possible, Heminge and Condell compiled the it from the good quartos and from manuscripts (now lost) such as prompt books, authorial fair copy, and foul papers (working drafts). They avoided bad quartos, which were spurious and corrupt pirate editions, likely based on memorial reconstructions.
The portrait of Shakespeare on the title page was engraved by Martin Droeshout and is one of only two portraits with any claim to authenticity. As Droeshout would have only been 15 when Shakespeare died it is unlikely that they actually met. Instead his picture was probably drawn from the memory of others, or from an earlier portrait. The writer Ben Jonson's admiring introduction to the First Folio, seen in the title page image, declared in verse that the engraver had achieved a good likeness.
This particular copy of the First Folio is part of the British Library’s Grenville collection and is one of the most widely seen First Folios in the world. It is estimated around 750 First Folios were printed, of which 233 are currently known to survive worldwide. The British Library owns five.
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