Published seven years after the famous bard’s death, the First Folio was the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. The Folger Shakespeare Library holds 82 copies of the First Folio, by far the largest collection in the world and more than a third of the 233 known copies in the world today. It is believed that 750 copies were originally printed.
The publication of the First Folio in 1623 was a significant event for the preservation of Shakespeare’s works. Prior to the First Folio, only half of Shakespeare’s plays had ever appeared in print. Plays such as Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night were saved for future generations when they were first printed in the First Folio.
The decision to print Shakespeare’s collected plays in a single folio is also significant in the history of English printing. Prior to the First Folio, all of Shakespeare plays—and most plays in general—were printed in quarto format, small books that resemble paperbacks of today. Bibles, theology, history, herbals, or law books were printed in the larger folio format, but plays for public theaters were considered popular entertainment, far from being respected as proper literature that was important enough to be printed in the more expensive folio format.
The printing of Shakespeare’s complete works was the first time a folio had been produced containing only plays. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, had included nine plays and nineteen other entertainments in his folio of collected works in 1616 and received some criticism for his presumption. Shakespeare’s First Folio sold well and, less than ten years later, the Second Folio was printed.
The two members of Shakespeare’s acting company who put together the First Folio argued that it had a level of authenticity missing from earlier printed versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Modern editors, however, have discovered interesting readings in the quartos that may reflect theatrical practice. A few of those quartos seem to have been based on unreliable sources: memories of actors, short-hand texts produced while watching a live production, or marked up scripts offered by actors looking to pad their purses.
As far as we know, Shakespeare himself never requested that any of his plays be published. Without modern copyright, the plays belonged to the acting company for which Shakespeare wrote. Later editions of Shakespeare’s collected works, i.e., the Second, Third, and Fourth Folios, all include corrections and additional errors introduced in the printing house; there may even have been a bit of minor editing. The latter two folios feature seven additional plays, only one of which is thought by modern scholars to have been at least partially written by Shakespeare.
It is, therefore, extremely fortunate that the First Folio exists for the plays that had already been published in earlier versions and those that were published for the first time.