Shakespeare’s First Folio

To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Library is displaying its copy of the First Folio on Friday 22 April, from 12:00 to 14:00. It is often said to be one of the most significant books ever printed – but why?

The title page of the Library’s First Folio

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April, 1564, and died there on April 23, 1616. In between he spent more than a quarter of a century as an actor and playwright in London, producing some of the greatest dramas and poems in the English language and giving us characters, scenes and words that still live on today.

Seven years after his death, in 1623, a book was published without which many of Shakespeare’s plays would have been lost forever:

‘Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies,
Histories, & Tragedies.
Published according to the True Originall Copies.’

This is the book now known as the First Folio. It contains 36 plays, 18 of which appeared there for the first time. Without the First Folio, half of Shakespeare’s plays would have been lost, including ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Tempest’, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘Twelfth Night’.

We would never have heard anyone say ‘By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes’, or ‘If music be the food of love, play on’, or ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’, or ‘O brave new world, that has such people in it’, or ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the people in it merely players’. We would never have watched Rosalind and Orlando fall in love in the forest of Arden, a sleepwalking Lady Macbeth try to wash the blood of the murdered Duncan from her hands, or seen a statue come to life when her lost daughter is restored to Hermione at the end of ‘The Winter’s Tale’.

Why was it published?

John Heminge and Henry Condell compiled the First Folio. They were both members of Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Men. Heminge and Condell say that they published the plays ‘to keep the memory of so worthy a Friend and Fellow alive, as was our Shakespeare’, and to provide a complete and accurate set of his works instead of the ‘stolen and surreptitious copies’ that were circulating.

What is the First Folio?

‘Folio’ means ‘leaf’, and a ‘folio’ book is printed on sheets of paper folded in half so that each half-sheet is one sheet of two pages. This large format was used for big, important books such as Bibles and editions of classical authors. Most plays were published individually as quartos – cheap, flimsy, portable booklets. During his lifetime this is how Shakespeare’s plays appeared in print. In choosing to publish this volume in folio, Heminge and Cundell were saying that they thought Shakespeare’s plays were important works that deserved to last. At a time when many people thought plays were only throwaway entertainment, if not downright immoral, this was a bold move. The ‘First Folio’ is the first of four editions in this format during the seventeenth century.

The Library’s copy

The National Library of Scotland’s copy of the First Folio has been in Scotland for at least 225 years. It was presented to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1784 by a Miss Clarke of Dunbar – its earlier history is unknown. The Antiquaries donated the book to the Library in 1949.

Miss Clarke of Dunbar

Shakespeare was not the only famous bard known to Miss Clarke. A few years after she had presented her First Folio to the Antiquaries, Miss Clarke met Robert Burns, who describes her in the journal he kept of his tour of the Scottish Borders in 1787:

‘I call on Miss Clarke, a maiden in the Scotch phrase, ‘Guid enough, but no brent new‘: a clever woman, with tolerable pretensions to remark and wit; while time had blown the blushing bud of bashful modesty into the flower of easy confidence. She wanted to see what sort of raree show an author was; and to let him know, that though Dunbar was but a little town, yet it was not destitute of people of parts.’

Find out more about the Library’s collections of plays by Shakespeare, or discover the great characters and language he created in our Learning Zone feature Getting Started With Shakespeare.

Detail from the First Folio