In honor of the Bard’s birthday (April 23, 1564), I thought I’d post a few notes on his most famous book, published seven years after his death (1616) in 1623–a collection of his plays often simply referred to as the “First Folio.”
Although not a scarce book, it is certainly rare and desirable–about 230 copies are extant. The Folger Shakespeare Library has over 80 copies. A complete copy sold in 2006 for a bit over $5 million.
John Heminges and Henry Condell (fellow players in Shakespeare’s company of the King’s Men) were the only surviving people named in Shakespeare’s will in 1619, and they took responsibility for putting the book together. They decided what to include and exclude, chose which printed editions and manuscripts were to be sent to the printer, and determined the order and categories by which they were arranged. Troilous and Cressida, for example, appears to have been printed from a copy of the 1609 quarto on which over 500 changes (some substantial) had been marked—an average of one change every two or three lines.
Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount began printing the folio in early 1622, and it was finished in November 1623 (ca. 22 months). The run was most likely 750 copies. Jaggard was printing three other folios simultaneously, as well as various job-printing projects. There were at least 100 instances of the press stopping for corrections (not including the proofing), according to Charleton Hinman’s magisterial 2-volume work on the subject. Hinman compared 55 copies at the Folger and noted over 40,000 variants, proving that no two copies of this “machine-made” book were exactly alike. The paper was imported (as most was, pre-Restoration), probably from Normandy. This was the first book printed in folio format (essentially the largest kind of book produced for general consumption) in England to be totally devoted to plays. Paper was at least 50% of the total investment in a book in the hand press period, 1455-1800. Ben Johnson’s 1616 folio, which included plays and other works, was criticized—although a commercial success—for printing drama in such a “wasteful” format.
The First Folio contained 36 plays, 18 of which had never before been printed (including Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest)—all of the traditionally accepted dramatic canon is included, with the exception of Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen (a collaboration with John Fletcher).
The earliest owners were noblemen and commoners of standing (earls, bishops, barons, knights, lawyers, town officials, university dons, gentlemen), and the edition sold out in less than a decade. It’s price at publication was between 10 shillings and £1, depending on the binding (from disbound to leather)—about $150 to $300 in today’s money.
A 1611 deposit agreement between the Bodleian (Oxford) and London booksellers provided them with a copy, which they sold as a duplicate in the 1660s after obtaining a Third Folio (1664/5); this same copy was bought back in 1905 (a costly weeding decision).
The PPL does not have a First Folio, but we would definitely accept one as a gift (LOL).