Did you know that this year is the 400th birthday of Shakespeare’s First Folio? Seven years after the Bard’s death, two of his friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, collected together 36 of his plays and published them. They used original quartos, prompt books and notes to try and produce the best versions of each play. As many of the plays had not been published in quarto form, this vital book ensured the survival of at least half of Shakespeare’s plays – imagine how terrible it would be not to know As You Like It, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest.
The two friends organised the plays into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies and somewhere between 750 and 1000 copies were printed. It seems corrections were often made during the printing process and no pages were discarded, so every copy is unique. 235 of them have survived and are treasured in libraries around the world. If you were an eager purchaser in 1623, you’d pay £1 for a bound copy and 15 shillings for an unbound one. The paper industry in England was then in its infancy, so some of the paper required came from France. Author Ben Jonson wrote a preface to the Folio. A copy sold in 2020 went for over $10 million US, making it the most expensive work of literature ever sold.
The world can be grateful to these two far-sighted men. It’s nice that there’s a memorial to them in the City of London, unveiled in 1896 (see featured image above). It is said that at every moment of every day, Hamlet is being performed somewhere in the world. I don’t know how true that is, but there is no doubt that Shakespeare has enriched our language, broadened our thought, given us new ways of perception and psychology, entertained and moved us, and he is, in my opinion, the greatest man ever to have trod this earth.
Happy 400th birthday to the magisterial, all-important First Folio.