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Shakespeare's First Folio

Image from Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare's First Folio
British Library G.11631 title page
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk
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This is the first collected edition of the plays of William Shakespeare, published in 1623, only seven years after his death. Two of his fellow actors and closest friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell, undertook the work of editing the text and supervising the printing by Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount. Only half of Shakespeare’s plays had been published previously, all in smaller format and some poorly edited. The engraved title page shows Martin Droeshout’s now famous portrait of Shakespeare.

What’s a folio?

The word ‘folio’ comes from the Latin for a leaf, and usually means a leaf in a manuscript. But in printers’ jargon it had another sense: it referred to page size. More than one page was printed at the same time on a single large sheet of paper, which was then folded into pages. When the sheet was folded once to form two leaves, making four pages, the page and book size was described as folio. A folio page is usually about 38 centimetres (15 inches) tall.

If the large printers’ sheet was folded twice to make four leaves, the resulting book had pages half the size of folio and was called ‘quarto’. When the sheet was folded again to make eight leaves, the size was known as ‘octavo’.

When were Shakespeare’s plays first printed?

Shakespeare began his career as an actor and playwright around 1592, not long after the first public playhouses were opened in London. He belonged to The Chamberlain’s Men, a company of actors under the patronage of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. Most of Shakespeare’s 37 plays were performed in the Globe, an open-air playhouse built on the south bank of the Thames in 1599.

There are no substantial surviving manuscripts of Shakespeare’s work. They are known only from printed editions. From 1594, seven of Shakespeare’s plays were published in quarto format. The earliest didn’t even credit Shakespeare as their author. Such ‘bad quartos’, as they are known, are often quite different from later editions: the ‘Hamlet’ bad quarto is only half the length of the play as performed today.

The initial print run of a quarto edition was around 800 copies. Each book was sold for sixpence. At this price, the pages were stitched together but not bound. The binding of books was often left to the purchasers, who had them bound to suite their taste – and purse.

You can find out much more about Shakespeare, the Quartos, and even read and compare different editions online by visiting our Shakespeare in Quarto web pages.

What’s special about the First Folio?

Shakespeare’s genius was not full appreciated until after his death in 1616. Seven years later, two of his fellow actors and closest friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell, decided to produce an authoritative collection of 36 of his plays. This was the First Folio.

Having been managers in Shakespeare’s company, Heminge and Condell had privileged access to his hand-written scripts and other sources, such as the company’s prompt-books. At last, readers would have the plays as they were actually performed, “where before,” the editors wrote, “you were abused with diverse, stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors... ” Copies of the First Folio sold for one pound each.

Heminge and Condell divided the plays into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, and this is how they have been thought of ever since. They dedicated the volume to the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery “to show their gratitude to the living, and the dead,” declaring that the venture was “without ambition either of self-profit, or fame: only to keep the memory of so worthy a Friend & Fellow alive, as was our Shakespeare...”

Is this how Shakespeare really looked?

There is little documentary evidence about the life of England’s greatest playwright, beyond the parish records of his baptism in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon and his burial in 1616. Even the traditional date for his birth, 23 April (conveniently, St George’s Day), is an educated guess. So it’s not surprising that his appearance is also a matter of conjecture.

The portrait of Shakespeare on the title page of the First Folio was engraved by Martin Droeshout and is one of only two having any claim to authenticity. Droeshout came from a Flemish family of engravers and painters. His work was well enough respected by 1631 for him to be commissioned to produce the engravings for a second edition of Helkiah Crooke’s Mikrokosmographia, a folio-sized book on the human body, over 1,000 pages long.

Droeshout was 22 years old when the First Folio was published, which means he had been only 15 when Shakespeare died, and unlikely to have actually met with him. His picture must, therefore, have been drawn from the memory of others or from an earlier portrait. He could have received good descriptions from Heminge and Condell, and from the writer Ben Jonson, who provided an admiring introduction to the First Folio. Jonson declared in verse that the engraver had achieved a good likeness:

This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;
Wherein the Graver had a strife
With Nature, to outdo the life:
O, could he but have drawn his wit
As well in brass, as he hath hit
His face; the Print would then surpass
All, that was ever writ in brass.
But, since he cannot, Reader, look
Not on his Picture, but his Book.

Droeshout’s other possible source is an earlier portrait made while Shakespeare was still alive - the second picture with a claim to some authenticity. It’s known as the Chandos portrait after one of its owners, the Duke of Chandos, and is now in London’s National Portrait Gallery. The Chandos portrait is believed to have been painted by John Taylor around 1610, when Shakespeare would have been aged 46.

The reputation of the Chandos portrait as a plausible likeness rests on the belief that it was formerly owned by a poet, playwright and theatre manager called William Davenant, once rumoured to have been Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. There is a clear resemblance between the Chandos portrait and Droeshout’s engraving, but their true relationship remains as shrouded in speculation as the rest of Shakespeare’s life.

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