Shakespeare’s first folio

shakespeare's first folio
One of the 230 surviving first folios. Credit: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

400 years after the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, we look back on the Bard’s remarkable legacy

Words by Neil Jones

What is Shakespeare’s First Folio?

Four hundred years ago, in 1623, a book appeared under the title Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies. Known today as The First Folio, the tome featured 36 of the Bard’s plays collected as a posthumous tribute to him by his fellow-actor friends John Heminge and Henry Condell. It has since become one of the most coveted and influential works of literature in the world – a First Folio fetched a record $9,978,000 at auction at Christie’s in New York in 2020. 

shakespeare's first folio
The Chandos portrait, by John Taylor, is believed to be the basis for the engraved portrait of Shakespeare used in The First Folio. Credit: Bridgeman Images

In Shakespeare’s time plays were not generally prized as literature and were more usually printed in small, cheap, ‘quarto’ formats. By publishing so many by one man in the much larger, prestigious folio format (a bound copy cost £1, the price of 44 loaves of bread) Heminge and Condell underlined the great esteem in which the Bard was held. 

An estimated 750–1,000 of Shakespeare’s First Folios were printed, of which around 230 are known to have survived worldwide in private and public ownership, including by the British Library. 

It is alarming to reflect that without Shakespeare’s First Folio about half of his plays might never have been saved for posterity, including Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest. Heminge and Condell compiled their texts using reliable quartos, now-lost manuscripts like prompt books and ‘foul papers’ (working drafts), reassuring their readers that, in contrast to pirated “stolne, and surreptitious copies”, here were the Bard’s plays “perfect of their limbes”, and “absolute in their numbers, as he conceived the[m].” 

In fact, Pericles had been missed out, while Troilus and Cressida slipped in but wasn’t listed on the contents page. 

shakespeare's first folio
A seal ring, found in a field in Stratford and believed to be Shakespeare’s, will be on display in a new exhibition at Shakespeare’s New Place. Credit: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Another remarkable feature of Shakespeare’s First Folio is Martin Droeshout’s frontispiece engraving of Shakespeare, which according to fellow playwright Ben Jonson was a very good likeness (the Bard’s bust at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon where he is buried is one other reliable depiction). In his poem to the memory of Shakespeare in The First Folio Jonson also gave us the famous tribute: “He was not of an age, but for all time!” Yet even Jonson could never have guessed just how enduring Shakespeare’s popularity and influence would be.

To this day visitors from around the globe have an image of England’s countryside conjured up by the Bard, of meadows painted with “daisies pied, and violets blue”. Fans flock to his birthplace in Stratford where his father worked as a glove-maker, and around Warwickshire villages where his relatives farmed and he romanced his wife-to-be Anne Hathaway (incidentally Anne died the same year Shakespeare’s First Folio was published). His plays are a staple of English studies in schools and theatre performances across the land and beyond. 

shakespeare's first folio
Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon. Credit: Sebastian Wasek/Alamy

William Shakespeare’s legacy

So why is Shakespeare so loved? For one thing, he is credited with the first recorded use or invention of more than 1,700 words that we use in daily life: bedroom, eyeball, fashionable, gossip, hurry, rant, and traditional, to name a few. We also look to him for many a masterful turn of phrase: “neither rhyme nor reason” (The Comedy of Errors), “cruel to be kind” (Hamlet), “a tower of strength” (Richard III), “wild-goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet), and “the world is my oyster” (The Merry Wives of Windsor).  

Clever wordplay, beautiful sonnets and lyricism aside, Shakespeare’s theatrical plots with their intricate twists and iconic characters have stood the test of time. Writing through the 1590s to roughly 1613 he plumbed the full range of human passions and experiences in all their rich, messy complexity. Love, marriage, families, friendship, ambition, power, corruption, jealousy and pride – all might be dressed up in period costume, of kings and queens, clowns and commoners, but they still speak to us today. 

shakespeare's first folio
The Knot Garden at Shakespeare’s New Place, the site that was his family home for 19 years. Credit: Julia Nottingham Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The names of Romeo and Juliet, for example, have become synonymous with youthful passion between star-crossed lovers, and the balcony scene in the eponymous play when Juliet declares her love for the son of her family’s sworn enemy is one of literature’s most romantic scenes. The Broadway musical West Side Story (1957) is just one re-working of the forbidden-love theme. 

Memorable characters, ingrained in our collective imagination, are bywords for types of people, like ruthless Lady Macbeth (“Look like th’innocent flower, But be the serpent under ’t”). Queen Elizabeth I was reputedly a fan of Shakespeare’s fat, jolly, debauched rogue Sir John Falstaff – from whom we derive our adjective Falstaffian; The First Folio notes Falstaff was a supreme crowd-puller for the Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Shakespeare is said to have based (and originally named) Falstaff after a real historical person, John Oldcastle, but following complaints from descendants called his character after a medieval knight, John Fastolf, who was the scapegoat for a lost battle against Joan of Arc. 

shakespeare's first folio
A memorial bust of Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. Credit: Chris Hellier/Alamy

The Bard’s probing of the psychology of his characters feels entirely modern, some critics even hailing the inward ruminations of Hamlet as nothing less than “the invention of the human”: the titular character’s contemplation of life, death and human existence – “To be, or not to be: that is the question…” – is possibly the most-quoted Shakespearian soliloquy. Bristling with tense action as Hamlet is prodded by his father’s ghost to avenge his murder, the play was another great hit, toured by actors abroad and even, in 1607, performed aboard a ship off Africa.

Shakespeare has also had a lasting influence in shaping our popular view of England and English history through his ten plays covering the medieval to Tudor era from King John to Henry VIII. No few politicians, for example, when turning on patriotic rhetoric, have reached for John of Gaunt’s speech about “this sceptred isle” (Richard II). 

shakespeare's first folio
The Bard’s birthplace

When Shakespeare was writing, a sense of pride following England’s victory over the Spanish Armada (1588), yet unease about the succession to childless Elizabeth I, worked up a hearty appetite for plays channelling the national story and earlier dynastic struggles. Shakespeare plundered chroniclers like (the somewhat inaccurate!) Raphael Holinshed for information and, never losing sight of his main aim to entertain, moulded his narratives accordingly. His portrayal of Richard III as a poisonous “bunchback’d toad” suited the Tudor dynasty that had replaced the last Plantagenet king – and coloured popular opinion even into recent times. 

shakespeare's first folio
Shakespeare’s Globe is a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, built in 1599

As a shareholder, actor and playwright with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men based at London’s Globe Theatre, Shakespeare was hugely successful despite competition from the city’s dozen-plus other playhouses. When Stuart King James VI/I succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603 his royal patronage gave the Bard and his colleagues clear
pre-eminence and a new name: The King’s Men. 

Shakespeare's First Folio
The theatre has both sitting and standing areas, as it would have done in Shakespeare’s time

With Scottish themes now in vogue Shakespeare flattered James with Macbeth (1606): playing on the king’s obsession with witchcraft and belief in his descent from the      legendary Banquo. For modern audiences the tragic tale is a masterclass in edge-of-the-seat suspense, murderous ambition and paranoia. 

Shakespeare's First Folio
Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe, 2022. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Performing Shakespeare has been a rite of passage or provided starring roles for many great actors, from magnificent Richard Burbage in the Bard’s day to Dame Judi Dench and Mark Rylance in recent times. From Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe in London to the Shakespeare North Playhouse outside Liverpool, performances continue to bring fresh vigour to words and characters that span the centuries, distilling the immortal words: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…”

This is an extract, read the full version in the May/June issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from 7 April.

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