Four hundred years ago, in November 1623, a volume of plays appeared on a bookstall in the market in St. Paul’s churchyard. Two years in preparation, the book was entitled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Shakespeare had died seven years earlier, and two of his actor colleagues, Henry Condell and John Heminges, were determined that his art should not die with him.
bard’s first collection
The printing of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays was a slow, intricate process, using the writer’s own manuscripts (none of which survives today), theatre prompt copies and old, small quarto editions. Only half of the thirty-six plays in the book’s nine hundred pages had been published before, so Condell and Heminges’ act saved for posterity such literary classics as Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.
The Book’s Importance
The First Folio (it was not called this until later) is probably the most important book in English, due to its effect on both language and culture in English-speaking countries. It is the basis of Shakespeare’s renown in all parts of the world, including places he never knew existed. The book even fixed his physical image for all time, with Martin Droeshout’s frontispiece of the balding playwright.
Libraries and Museums
Printer William Jaggard made 750 copies of Shakespeare’s works, for sale at fifteen shillings unbound and one pound bound. There are now 235 copies in existence, most of them in libraries and museums — the US has 149 and Britain fifty (the British Library keeps five copies.) There is a burnt copy, impossible to recognise, reverently protected in a glass sarcophagus in the University of Pennsylvania. There are probably twenty-seven in private hands, with few likely to enter the open market. In 2020 a rare book dealer, Stephen Lowentheil, paid $9.98 million for a copy.
For all Time
According to Professor Emma Smith, author of The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio, corrections while printing mean that “each copy is a unique collation” — there were also errors from a careless teenage apprentice at Jaggard’s printing shop! Many copies also have annotations, doodles and markings from owners (and marks from their pets!) made over the centuries.
Posterity owes Shakespeare’s friends, Condell and Heminges, an enormous debt. Their determination to preserve the playwright’s legacy has meant that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time”, in the famous words of his friend Ben Jonson’s dedicatory poem.