A Brief History of William Shakespeare's First Folio

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

The Droeshout engraving from the cover of the First Folio. (Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

The First Folio is the only reliable text we have for 20 of Shakespeare's known works.

In 1621, two longtime colleagues of William Shakespeare decided that their deceased friend should be canonized for his work as a playwright. John Heminges and Henry Condell had worked with Shakespeare in the King's Men as actors and company shareholders. They had unparalleled access to the company's collection of manuscripts and had participated in the production of Shakespeare's works when they were first written. And the two men had close ties to Shakespeare, both having been named in his last will and testament.

Heminges and Condell formed a consortium with bookseller Edward Blount and the father/son tandem of printers William and Isaac Jaggard. Their goal: to produce an anthology of Shakespeare's works—a folio.

The idea wasn't a completely novel concept. The playwright Ben Jonson had self-published a folio of his own dramatic works and poetry in 1616, the year Shakespeare had died. But that had been a risky and somewhat controversial publication. Folios were reserved for "serious" literature by deceased authors. Jonson had dared publish plays—popular entertainments that were hardly considered literature in their day—while still alive. The decision drew criticism from more than a few of his contemporaries.

Still, the precedent had been set, and Shakespeare himself was long dead. Heminges and Condell set about collecting, revising, and annotating manuscripts, and the printers began to typeset the manuscript.

Compilation and Editing

The source material was prepared from a combination of "foul copies" (Shakespeare's working drafts of his plays), "fair copies" (clean transcriptions of the foul copies), prompt books (annotated versions of the fair copies used in staging the actual performance), and quartos (previously published editions of the plays). Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, only half had been previously published as quartos. The rest would have been lost to history had it not been for the First Folio.

Heminges and Condell provided much of the initial material for the folio. It has been posited that the prompter of the King's Men, Edward Knight, was instrumental in proofreading the manuscripts for the First Folio. As the company's prompter, Knight would have been responsible for managing the company's scripts, including compliance with any edits ordered by the Master of Revels.

The bulk of the work was edited prior to going to print. However, approximately 134 pages (14.8%) show signs of editing while the typesetting was in process. Because of the division of work, this led to significant variations among individual copies of the First Folio.


Scholars don't have a lot of definitive documentation about the printing of the First Folio. They have, however, been able to work out many of the details, at least in theory. To start with, the majority of experts believe that the son, Isaac Jaggard, oversaw the bulk of the printing work. His father, William, died in 1623 a month before the First Folio was published and was practically blind during the book's production. The printing of the book is estimated to have occurred over an eighteen-month span, starting around February of 1622.

Scholars have identified at least five compositors (labelled "A" through "E"), based on spelling habits and other conventions, who were involved in the actual typesetting. These vary from highly competent ("A" and "B") to what was likely an apprentice, John Leason ("E"), who in the words of professor Paul Collins was "miserable at it." Some have also identified up to three more compositors ("F" through "H") depending upon the stylistic analysis used.

Publication and Sale

The First Folio was originally anticipated to be ready for sale about a year before it actually appeared; the Frankfurt Book Fair catalogue estimated the book to be available as early as April of 1622. The printing instead continued late into the next year. The First Folio was formally entered into the Stationer's Register on November 8, 1623.

The book was dedicated to "the incomparable pair" of William and Philip Pembroke (the sons of the Earl of Pembroke and Mary Sidney Herbert). The brothers were patrons and supporters of the King's Men before and after Shakespeare's death. It included prefatory material by Heminges and Condell, and eulogies by Ben Jonson, Hugh Holland, Leonard Digges, and James Mabbe.

The exact number of copies printed is the subject of debate. Most scholars agree that the total number was somewhere between 750 and 1,000. The book sold for approximately £1 (in the neighborhood of $200 today). The first recorded sale was two copies to Sir Edward Dering, who noted the purchase in his account book. The Bodleian Library of Oxford purchased a copy in early 1624.

Present Day

There are 233 known surviving copies of the First Folio. Of those, only 40 are complete; most have damaged or missing pages. It is a landmark publication, arguably as significant as the Gutenberg Bible. At a 2001 Christie's auction, one copy sold for $6.16 million. And the work continues to make news. In November of 2014, a copy of the First Folio lost for nearly 200 years was rediscovered in a French library.

All very impressive for a book of "frivolous" works when it was published. The First Folio now ranks one of the most important—and valuable—books in English ever committed to print.


Internet Shakespeare Editions; Shakespeare and the Book; The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World (Collins, 2010); The First Folio of Shakespeare (Blayney, 1991); The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio (Hinman, 1963); The Shakespeare First Folio: Its Bibliographical and Textual History (Gregg, 1955)