This year marks the 400th anniversary of the printing of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies: more than 900 pages collecting 36 of the Renaissance writer’s plays together for the very first time. The impact of the 1623 “First Folio” is still felt across the world today. Besides being translated into over 100 languages, there are more than 1000 adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, also making him the most filmed author in history. Countless high school students in English literature classes can still recall their brush with the Bard. Here are a few fun facts about the momentous First Folio.
1. “Folio” describes the book’s physical format.
Up until this effort, plays were usually printed individually in cheaper “quarto” editions, a small booklet of sheets that were folded twice to make eight pages. But a “folio” was made by folding paper only once, creating four pages per sheet. Folios were expensive due to their large size and high-quality bindings, so thus far, typically only important texts of a historical, royal, or religious nature were published in this format.
2. The First Folio was printed seven years after Shakespeare died.
Shakespeare never saw his works published in one place. John Heminge and Henry Condell—actors in the King’s Men theater company that they all worked for—put together the First Folio as a tribute to their departed friend.
3. Roughly 235 First Folios have survived to this day.
When the First Folios went on sale in 1623, bound copies cost £1 (around $240 in today’s money) and unbound copies were 15 shillings (around $150). Of the 235 copies that are known to still exist, only 56 contain all 908 pages. The Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., has 82 copies, the largest collection in the world. The most recent copy was discovered in 2016 at a mansion on the Scottish Isle of Bute.
4. In 2020, a copy sold for nearly $10 million.
In 2020, Oakland, California’s Mills College auctioned off their copy of the First Folio. It sold for $9,978,000 to a rare book collector, making it one of the most expensive books ever sold.
5. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays could have been lost forever.
While many of Shakespeare’s plays had previously been printed individually in quarto editions, 18 of them hadn’t been published at all and would likely have been lost completely if the First Folio had not been assembled.
6. Shakespeare’s plays invented or introduced many new words.
William Shakespeare used more than 20,000 words in his plays and poems, and his works provide the first recorded use of over 1,700 words in the English language that are still used today.
7. The First Folio doesn’t actually contain all of Shakespeare’s plays.
Scholars now agree that Shakespeare had co-writers for Edward III, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Pericles, but these plays are absent from the First Folio for unknown reasons. Also missing are two plays that are probably gone forever: Cardenio (likely based on Cervantes’s Don Quixote), and Love’s Labour’s Won (probably a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost).
8. Each First Folio has unique characteristics.
Each copy is distinctive, because of the owners handling and annotating their books, and because spelling errors were made or corrected during the printing process. Moreover, according to The Institute for Digital Archaeology, “no two books smell exactly alike.” The one housed at the Bodleian Library in Oxford apparently smells like “benzaldehyde, a chemical evocative of maraschino cherries, and 2-nonenal, known as moldy furniture smell to odor experts, but there are also strong traces of tobacco.”
9. The First Folio contains one of only two realistic portraits of Shakespeare.
Although there are many depictions of Shakespeare, scholars believe that only two accurately represent him. One is the painted bust on his funerary monument in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. The other is Droeshout’s portrait on the First Folio’s title page.
10. The First Folios still provide literary intrigue.
Of the 160 First Folios listed in a 1902 census, 14 were subsequently stolen, of which only 2 were ever recovered. Part literary detective story and part Shakespearean lore, The Shakespeare Thefts, In Search of the First Folios by Eric Rasmussen provides a riveting journey around the globe, involving run-ins with heavily tattooed criminal street gangs in Tokyo, bizarre visits with reclusive billionaires, and intense battles of wills with secretive librarians.
Get Your Shakespeare On!
During the summer months Seattle Shakespeare Company and GreenStage present free, outdoor performances throughout the Puget Sound region. Grab a picnic, bring your family, and join in for some free Shakespeare in the Park!