In Case You Missed It: Shakespeare’s First Folio

Exactly four hundred years after his death, we are still studying the iconic words found in William Shakespeare’s sonnets and dramas. He is a staple of English literature, with nearly every avid reader a self-proclaimed fan of his works. Because of the huge time separation, most of us are unable to experience Shakespeare first hand. However, getting to see the First Folio is as close as many of us can get.
The First Folio is the first publication of Shakespearean dramas, published in 1623. Thanks to the Folger Shakespeare Library, a copy of the 400-year-old document was on display at the J. Wayne Stark Galleries right on the Texas A&M Campus, open for viewing. The exhibit ran from March 8 to April 3, so unfortunately it is too late to see the beautiful document, which was open to the famous “To be or not to be” passage of Hamlet. In case you missed it, here are four burning questions you may have had about the document that were answered.

1. What does the term “folio” mean?
“Folio” is a term that describes a large book in which the pages are folded only once. Prior to that of Shakespeare, folios were used only for religious, royal, or reference documents, making the First Folio England’s first folio dedicated only to plays. Prior to 1623, Shakespeare plays were made in “quartos,” which are flimsy books folded into quarters, presumably for use only by actors.

2. How long is the First Folio and how long did it take to publish? How much did the printing process cost?
The First Folio has approximately 900 two-columned pages with 36 plays, the Tempest being the first. There were at least five compositors who would set the type by hand for each page, and it took two years to publish. It is said that a finished First Folio cost today’s equivalent of nearly $200, though copies today can be sold for $5-6 million.

3. How many copies are there of the First Folio?
It is said that there were 750 copies published, though the whereabouts of less than 250 are known. The Folger Shakespeare Library has the largest collection, with 82 copies. However, because the type was set by hand, pages with typographical and spacing errors were used, and there were multiple compositors, each copy of the First Folio is slightly unique.

4. Why is the First Folio important?
Because Shakespeare’s plays were not published before the First Folio, there is no telling whether or not we would have any sort of major artifact of his writing. More importantly, nearly twenty of his famous dramas, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, As You Like it, and others, would not have lived on, since the First Folio was the first time they appeared in print. The First Folio also allows us insight into seventeenth-century printing and publishing processes.

Though the First Folio is no longer at the Stark Galleries for viewing, there are many events such as movies and lectures running through late April—and beyond! Click here to see the events that are lined up. It is not too late to get your Shakespeare fix!

–Aubrey Rieder

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