Back to exhibition

Write till your ink be dry

Shakespeare’s First Folio



About the Item

What is a folio? A folio is a book that is made by folding printed handmade sheets of paper in half, with each sheet forming four pages. Four hundred years ago in 1623, when Shakespeare’s First Folio was printed, this kind of book was usually saved for subjects that were considered important such as history and religion. Shakespeare’s First Folio was the first folio of plays to ever be published.

The First Folio is also really important because it is the first collected works of William Shakespeare, containing 36 of his plays. Half of these plays had never been published before so without The First Folio we might have lost some of Shakespeare’s plays forever, including some of his most famous ones such as Macbeth and The Tempest.

William Shakespeare died in 1616 and so he never saw this collection of plays all together. Luckily two of Shakespeare’s friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell (who were actors and partners in The King’s Men acting company) realised that they must make sure that Shakespeare’s plays were not lost and they brought the plays together to be published in The First Folio.

It is thought that approximately 750 copies of The First Folio were published. At the moment we know that 235 copies have survived. One of these copies wasn’t found until 2016. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has three copies in its collections (including the Theatre Copy belonging to the RSC). Unlike when we publish books today, not all copies are exactly the same. For example, there are four known versions of the Shakespeare portrait on the title page, each with differences in the shading and detail. The copies of The First Folio that remain today all have their own unique details. 400 years ago corrections were made throughout the printing process and because nothing could be wasted even the pages with corrections on them were used in the final books. In addition some copies have been written or drawn on by their owners, some copies were damaged, some have pages missing and some have been rebound and trimmed to fit new bindings.

Click on the red tab to see some more images and take a look at the portrait of Shakespeare on the title page. This is possibly one of the most faithful likenesses you will ever see of William Shakespeare. It is an engraving by an artist called Martin Droeshout and was seemingly approved by those who worked on The First Folio and they knew what Shakespeare looked like very well.

So, as you can see, The First Folio is really important - it is the first time such a special type of book was used for a collection of plays, it is the first time that Shakespeare’s plays were collected together, it has a portrait of Shakespeare that is considered authentic and, perhaps most importantly, without it we might have lost 18 of Shakespeare’s plays forever!

Watch this!

Watch Emily Green, Librarian at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust showing us a precious First Folio in this informative video.


CC-BY-NC-ND Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust