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

Relat­ed Con­tent 

3,000 Illus­tra­tions of Shakespeare’s Com­plete Works from Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land, Neat­ly Pre­sent­ed in a New Dig­i­tal Archive

The Only Sur­viv­ing Script Writ­ten by Shake­speare Is Now Online

Ian McK­ellen Reads a Pas­sion­ate Speech by William Shake­speare, Writ­ten in Defense of Immi­grants

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Shakespeare’s Globe The­atre in Lon­don

– 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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