Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

Behold Shakespeare’s First Folio, the First Published Collection of Shakespeare’s Plays, Published 400 Year Ago (1623)

Summer’s lease may have all too short a date, but every year, it’s time enough for dozens, nay, hundreds of free Shakespeare productions to pop up in the parks and parking lots.

We owe these pleasures in part to the First Folio, a fat collection of Shakespeare’s plays, compiled in 1623, seven years after his death.

As Elizabeth James, senior librarian at the National Art Library in London, and Harriet Reed, contemporary performance curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum point out in the show-and-tell above, 18 previously-unpublished plays would have sunk into oblivion had they not been truffled up and preserved here by John Heminge and Henry Condell, listed in the Folio as among the ‘Principall Actors’ of his work.

You may be able to imagine a world without Cymbeline or Timon of Athens, but what about Macbeth or The Tempest?

Hemings and Condell’s desire to create an accurate compendium of Shakespeare’s work for posterity led them to scour prompt books, authorial fair copy, and working drafts referred to as “foul papers” –  a term rife for revival, in our opinion – for the texts of the unpublished works.

Their labors yielded some 750 copies of a luxurious, high-priced volume, which positioned Shakespeare as someone of such consequence, his words were to be accorded the same reverence as that of classical authors’.

They categorized the plays as comedies, tragedies, or histories, forever cementing our conceptions of the individual works.

The now familiar portrait of the author also contributed to the perceived weightiness of the tome.

Of the 230-some First Folios that survive, the bulk are in library or university collections – with the Folger Shakespeare Library, Tokyo’s Meisei University, the New York Public Library, the British Library the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, the University of Texas at Austin and Princeton among those holding multiple copies.

Some retain the handwritten annotations of their original owners, a meticulous record of plays seen or read. How many would you be able to check off as something read or seen?

All’s Well That Ends Well, 

Antony and Cleopatra

As You Like It

The Comedy of Errors



Henry VI, Part 1

Henry VII

Julius Caesar

King John,


Measure for Measure

The Taming of the Shrew

 The Tempest

Timon of Athens

Twelfth Night

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The Winter’s Tale.

An online version of the First Folio can be viewed here.

via Aeon

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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