Tradition holds that William Shakespeare was born this day, 23 April, in 1564, though it’s impossible to know the date for sure. What is known is that he was baptised at Holy Trinity, the parish church of Stratford-on-Avon, on the 26th of the month, so was probably born sometime between the 21st and 23rd. The 23rd of April is also recorded as Shakespeare’s date of death in 1616, and it is this untimely event which we have to thank for the preservation and promotion of his works in the First Folio, and ultimately his enshrinement as one of England’s great geniuses.
Shakespeare was only 52 when he, Ben Johnson, and the poet-playwright Michael Drayton “had a merry meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted” (ODNB). As a memorial, his friends and fellow members of The King’s Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, decided to produce a collected edition of his plays.
Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays had been published during his lifetime, individually in cheap and probably unauthorised quarto editions, some of which became bestsellers. These often error-riddled editions are described in the First Folio as “stol’n and surreptitious copies”, and some seem to have been reproduced solely from the memories of actors trying to make a little cash on the side. This continued after his death, and in 1619 the publisher Thomas Pavier and printer William Jaggard produced ten quarto plays ostensibly by Shakespeare (though two were not actually his work), and this may have spurred Heminges and Condell to complete their own collected edition and reassert the King’s Men’s authority over the texts.
It wouldn’t be an easy process. Though the King’s Men held the copyrights to many of the plays, it took years to negotiate for others, which remained with the publishers of the quarto editions. Though these publishers did not have what we today would consider intellectual priority over the works, they had been the first to enter them in the Stationer’s Register, which gave them the copyrights. Some even had to be brought in as partners, earning shares of the proceeds of the First Folio based on how many plays they contributed. Willaim Jaggard himself served as the head printer on the project until his death in 1623.
The printing began in early 1622 and took around two years to complete, with the earliest known sale of a First Folio occurring in December 1623. The choice of the imposing folio format was vital to the book’s success, “giving the volume the instant status of a classic: it is a weighty tome, a book for individuals’ libraries, a collection perhaps to be owned rather than read… It was also expensive, probably not less than 15s. a copy and often costing £1 or more” (ODNB). Prior to this, theatre in England had been considered low-brow, and no collection of plays had been published in such a lavish manner. The First Folio elevated not only Shakespeare’s reputation, but that of play-writing in general.
Most importantly, the First Folio included 36 of Shakespeare’s 38 known plays, 18 of which had never before been printed and would probably have been lost to history if not included. And the texts, edited by Shakespeare’s close friends and his fellow writers and actors, are considered the most authoritative of all early printings. Shakespeare’s reputation today rests largely on the publication of the First Folio.
Despite its expense, the book sold well enough that a second edition, the Second Folio, was required in 1632. Published by a syndicate of five firms, copies appear with one of five different imprints depending on which publisher sold them. Our copy, pictured above, has the scarcest imprint, that of the publisher John Smethwick, who owned the rights to four plays: Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Taming of the Shrew. Despite the importance of these titles, Smethwick’s small contribution of four plays meant that his share of finished copies was relatively low, and his imprint correspondingly scarce. Also of note–the second Folio contains the first appearance in print of John Milton, who contributed a poem to the Effigies leaf that did not appear in the first edition.
Two more folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays were published by the beginning of the eighteenth century, followed by a number of important editions edited by authors such as Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope. Today, though, the most highly sough-after editions are still the early folios, with the First Folio becoming one of the most valuable books in the world. Around 750 copies were printed, but only 230 survive, and of those only 40 are complete. Most extant copies are held in libraries, and in the last decade only three have been sold at auction, all achieving prices in the millions of dollars. As much as we hate to have second-best books here at Peter Harrington, the Second Folio is a second-best we’re glad to have, as it is the earliest edition of Shakespeare that is practicably obtainable on the market.
For more information about Shakespeare’s publishing history try these links:
- The Folger Library has pages on the First Folio and the Quarto editions.
- The Shakespeare Quartos Archive is a collaborative project hosting digital facsimiles of each of Shakespeare’s Quartos.
- From Slate, one of my favourite articles on Shakespeare: Folioed Again! Why Shakespeare is the world’s worst stolen treasure.
- The Genius of Shakespeare, by Jonathan Bate, is an excellent historical account of how Shakespeare posthumously attained his reputation as the great genius of English literature.
- In October I wrote a blog post on Shakespeare and the birth of modern cryptography.