The First Folio is the first collected edition of William Shakespeare's plays, collated and published in 1623, seven years after his death. Folio editions were large and expensive books that were seen as prestige items.
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 sometime 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 in London built on the south bank of the Thames in 1599. As none of Shakespeare's original manuscripts survive (except, possibly, Sir Thomas More, which Shakespeare is believed to have revised a part of) 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, one was printed after his death and 18 had not yet been printed at all. It is this fact that makes the First Folio so important; without it, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, including Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest, might never have survived.
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. They divided the plays into comedies, tragedies and histories, an editorial decision that has come to shape our idea of the Shakespearean canon.
In order to produce as authoritative a text as possible, Heminge and Condell compiled it from the good quartos and from manuscripts (now lost) such as prompt books, authorial fair copy, and foul papers (working drafts). The First Folio offered a corrective to what are now called bad quartos – spurious and corrupt pirate editions, likely based on memorial reconstruction.
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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- Andrew Dickson
From Stratford to London (and back again), from ‘upstart crow’ to 'wonder of our stage', Andrew Dickson recounts some of the details of William Shakespeare’s life.
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