1 May 2023 Susannah

Shakespeare’s First Folio

Shakespeare's First Folio & John Heminges and Henry Condell Memorial in London

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.

Can you imagine a world without Shakespeare? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- John Heminges and Henry Condell Memorial in London, commemorating their work with Shakespeare, By Nicholas Jackson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25257498; & The First Folio Collection, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/shakespeares-first-folio

Comments (8)

  1. Dominic Lehane

    I think Shakespeare is very valuable in this day and age particularly because of the antiquarian nature of the plays. The flowery, poetical language used by Shakespeare is not present in dramas today but is unique to his time. I would say that Shakespeare’s plays are the ‘costume dramas’ of the English language.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I think he was unique for his time, but also for all time. His language still speaks to us today.

  2. Professor Chris Browne

    Hi Susannah

    I have a Shakespeare first Folio which I purchased in 2016 for less than $200!

    How is this possible? My Shakespeare first folio was published, not in 1623, but rather in 2016, by Norton in the USA. It is in fact a facsimile edition of a Shakespeare first folio, published at the same size and fonts as the original. It is a clever reproduction, as it has been made up of the best parts of the 82 original first Folios held by the Folger Collection in the USA. This colossal collection dwarfs the five copies held by the British Library.

    There is an authentic Shakespeare Second Folio in Melbourne presently and it is for sale for those with the inclination and the bank balance. We plan to show it during Melbourne Rare Book Week this July.

    Collecting facsimile editions is a great way of appreciating rare or unique books that one can never hope to own. So, I have a facsimile of The Book of Kells, a literally unique book held at Trinity College Dublin, where only one of the four volumes is on display at any one time. I can view any part of all four volumes om my facsimile copy, albeit without the added joy of being in Dublin.


    • Susannah Fullerton

      I totally agree – it is fabulous to own facsimiles of great books. I have one of the first edition of Pride and Prejudice as, sadly, I can’t see myself owning the real things. And to have one of the Book of Kells is so special. Each time I’ve been to see it, there’s been such a crowd, but with your copy, you can sit in comfort and turn pages and really enjoy it. And you don’t need ultra security to protect it either. Thanks once again for your comments, Chris – always so interesting.

  3. Maria

    I was looking for something on my bookshelves recently when I came upon a number of theatre programs from the 1980s I think (they don’t have dates) for several John Bell productions of various Shakespeare plays performed at the Nimrod theatre. The sets and costumes referenced Australian rural norms (yes, there were corks hanging from hat brims) – quite odd when I think about it, but somehow it seemed to make the plays more accessible and appealing to audiences of the day. As well as directing, the magnificent Mr Bell performed in most of them too. What a lucky young woman I was to experience these quirky, wonderful productions, which may not have been possible had the plays not been so well preserved by the efforts of Heminge and Condell.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      How nice that you kept the programmes and that they bring back fabulous memories. John Bell is a national treasure!!!

  4. Vanessa Coldwell

    A world without Shakespeare!? Unthinkable!! Reading Othello and Macbeth in my A-level English class back in 1990 ignited a life-long love of the Bard and language. I went on to study English Lit and not a day goes by where I don’t come across something Shakespearean. Vanessa, U.K.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, it’s a horrific thought, isn’t it? We owe a huge debt to Heminges and Condell. Shakespeare has influenced so much of our language and thought and culture.

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