Surviving copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio to go on show

Events planned in UK and Ireland, including a British Library exhibition, to mark 400 years since complete works first published

Four hundred years ago, a small band of William Shakespeare’s loyal friends and fellow thespians embarked on the complicated challenge of bringing his complete works together in one bound volume. Whether it was an act of love and respect or a money-making venture is unknown.

But without the First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, half his plays would be lost. Now in this quatercentennial year, institutional and private owners of First Folios will make their copies available to be viewed by the public across the UK and Ireland.

A website dedicated to “one of the great wonders of the literary world” tells the story of the First Folio and logs the homes of the surviving 235 copies, including five in the possession of the British Library. Only 56 are complete copies, with most missing some of their original pages.

The British Library will hold an exhibition this year, and a feature film with a screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman is in production. Two books, The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio and Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, both by Emma Smith, a professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University, will be published next month.

Marcus Coles
Marcus Coles, conceiver of the project, says the folios are ‘the closest we can get to his original writing’. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Marcus Coles, a former businessman behind the website who says he developed an “obsession” with the First Folio after a chance visit to the Globe theatre in London, said the bound collections of Shakespeare’s work were “the closest we can get to his original writing”.

In Shakespeare’s day, plays were written to be performed, and rarely printed – and as a result many were lost. But in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death at the age of 52, his friend and rival Ben Jonson published a collection of his own poems and plays in folio format.

Shakespeare’s three associates from the King’s Men acting company, John Heminges, Henry Condell and Richard Burbage, set to work on a compilation of the Bard’s plays. Eighteen had been printed but another 18 existed only as annotated handwritten copies or prompt books.

The trio took the edited scripts to a respected printing shop where compositors copied them into metal type. Many mistakes were made, and because paper was so costly the mistakes survived. The title page of the First Folio was a portrait of Shakespeare made by engraving very fine lines into a sheet of copper.

The printing process was “very labour intensive in a very nasty working environment”, said Coles, but by November 1623 they were ready to go on sale.

First the 18 unpublished plays had to be signed off by the “master of revels” at Stationers’ Hall in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral. The original register, still stored at the hall, records “Master William Shakespeare’s comedies, histories and tragedies”, including The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and Antony and Cleopatra.

About 700 to 750 copies of the First Folio were produced. Some were bound with the skin of calf, sheep or goat, costing a sovereign, but most were left unbound. The target market was “discerning and wealthy theatregoers”, according to Coles.

The First Folio is displayed at Christie’s in London
A copy of the First Folio is displayed at Christie’s in London, January 2020. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Of the surviving copies, 50 are in the UK and 149 in the US. It took “a long time to become a book of value”, said Coles, but a pristine copy, with all its original leaves intact, fetched nearly $10m at auction in 2020.

“No First Folio is the same, they all have different histories and stories. But the book is foundational to our language. Rarely a day goes by when you don’t hear a phrase from a Shakespeare play being spoken – often without the speaker realising they are quoting Shakespeare,” said Coles.

Smith said: “Without the First Folio, we would have some of Shakespeare’s plays, scattered in individual editions. But we wouldn’t have the sense of significance, weight (literally), and permanence that this large volume gives to the author.

“Without this book and the way it has preserved and solidified his reputation, we wouldn’t be quoting, performing, teaching, arguing about Shakespeare today.”

Six gifts to the English language from Shakespeare

  • Green-eyed monster – “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster”, Othello, Act III, Scene III

  • Fair play – “For a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, and I would call it fair play”, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I

  • It’s Greek to me – “Nay, an I tell you that, Ill ne’er look you i’ the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me”, Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II

  • Be cruel to be kind – “I must be cruel only to be kind”, Hamlet, Act III, Scene IV

  • Love is blind – “Love is blind, and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit”, The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene VI

  • Too much of a good thing – “Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?”, As You Like It, Act IV, Scene I


Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Shakespeare First Folio copy estimated to fetch $2.5m in New York auction
Book printed 400 years ago is one of fewer than 20 copies in private hands

Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

09, Jun, 2022 @2:52 PM

Article image
Rare original copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio sells for £2m
400-year-old edition of playwright’s first collected book of plays including Macbeth and Twelfth Night auctioned at Sotheby’s

Mabel Banfield-Nwachi

22, Jul, 2022 @3:49 PM

Article image
Is Iceland’s language a Norse code – or legacy of Celtic settlers?
Gaelic origins of Icelandic words and landmarks challenge orthodox view of Viking heritage, says author

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

04, Jan, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
London museum to use AI to let visitors walk on Shakespeare’s early stage
Museum of Shakespeare in Shoreditch to open in 2024 on site of playhouse that staged earliest performances

Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

19, Apr, 2023 @2:58 PM

Article image
Tiny notebook by ‘first Shakespeare geek’ to go on show in Stratford
Crammed with minuscule writing, manuscript is seen as earliest ‘proper reader’s response’ to first folio

Dalya Alberge

04, Feb, 2023 @7:00 AM

Article image
Historic Irish library could make more than £1.8m at auction
Private collection of 19th-century judge includes early editions of Shakespeare, Swift and Bacon, as well as medieval works

Danuta Kean

03, Jun, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for first time
Demographic shift shown in census was expected but will still deliver psychological blow to unionists

Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent

22, Sep, 2022 @8:48 AM

Article image
No 10 rules out law change for return of Parthenon marbles
No plans to amend legislation that could stop removal back to Greece, after secret talks held over their future

Pippa Crerar Political editor

05, Dec, 2022 @4:26 PM

Article image
Three sections of Roman wall in City of London given protected status
Remains of once vast riverside structure granted legal protection against unauthorised change

Esther Addley

03, May, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
16th-century log of swan ownership goes up for auction
Tudor manuscript listing aristocratic owners, and birds’ ornate markings, is described as ‘a really rare survival’

Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

11, Aug, 2022 @2:41 PM