Shakespeare's First Folio

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William Shakespeare, William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies. London: Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623.

Image source: Folger Shakespeare Library

Time’s Pencil treats the 1623 publication known as Shakespeare’s First Folio as the origin of Shakespeare’s larger influence and reputation. While the First Folio’s publication alone did not guarantee that Shakespeare would be read and performed for centuries after his death, the importance of this book in making such a legacy possible may not be overstated. Some 18 of the 36 plays included in the First Folio had not been published by 1623: if not collected here, they might have been lost forever. This list includes Macbeth, The Tempest, Measure for Measure, As You Like It, and Antony and Cleopatra  – some of Shakespeare’s most popular, emblematic, and interesting works.

The frontispiece image of William Shakespeare has become famous, even as the poem opposite, written by Ben Jonson, urges the reader to see the author as more truly represented by the “wit” within the pages of the book.

Yet even this measure of 18 otherwise unpublished plays understates the role of the First Folio in preserving Shakespeare’s corpus. Had the First Folio not inaugurated an account of Shakespeare as a playwright of particular importance, all of whose works were to be valued and seen as a collective body, many of the other 18 plays it included that had  already been published by 1623 might similarly have been lost to time. These 18 had been published in the smaller, less culturally prestigious quarto format (and one in a smaller edition) seen as appropriate to plays, themselves not valued highly (see “Jonson’s Workes”). Not until the 18th century, when Shakespeare’s reputation had grown considerably and when his editors began a concerted hunt for all early Shakespeare editions to help them generate “authoritative” texts of the plays, were many of these earlier publications located and studied. The early quartos are the rarest of Shakespeare’s texts, precisely because they were not much valued for so long. Some of these editions survived in just a few copies or even a single copy. They might well not have been searched out without a sense that all of Shakespeare’s works – at least his dramatic works – were “for all time,” as the Folio was first to argue.


The Catalogue (table of contents) of the First Folio suggests that Shakespeare’s peers thought of his plays as categorized into different genres. The absence of Troilus and Cressida in the Catalogue, though it is printed in the book, hints at difficulties the publisher may have had in obtaining copyright of this play. In this copy, a former owner has written the title in by hand.

The First Folio was shepherded into print by Shakespeare’s fellow shareholders in the King’s Men company, John Heminge and Henry Condell. They would have tracked down the various publishers holding copyright of many of Shakespeare’s plays as well as the surviving texts of those plays that were unpublished. This was a complex endeavor: the copyright of one play, Troilus and Cressida, must have been secured only at the last minute, as it is printed first in the “Tragedies” without being listed in the table of contents. (Some surviving copies of the First Folio indicate that Troilus and Cressida  was intended to be placed elsewhere in the book, with printing halted when copyright presumably was not yet available.)

In its organization and prefatory content, the First Folio suggested ideas about Shakespeare and approaches to his work that would prove influential for centuries. Heminge and Condell divided the plays into three genres, suggesting a way of categorizing them that still often shapes analysis of these plays. Comedy, history, and tragedy were the only generic rubrics they provided. These labels worked well with some plays and raised questions about others.

Notably absent from the First Folio’s generic categories was poetry. This may have seemed odd at the time. Shakespeare’s narrative poems, The Rape of Lucrece  and especially Venus and Adonis, were bestsellers, the works for which he was arguably best known. Venus and Adonis  had been published 16 times by 1623: even Richard III, published 6 times by 1623 and Shakespeare’s most popular play in print, was not nearly as strong a seller. If they were even approached by Heminge and Condell, the copyright holders of Shakespeare’s narrative poems had no incentive to make the works available to the Folio’s publishers – the two narrative poems would continue to sell well through the 1630s. Paradoxically, the poems’ popularity in 1623 and unavailability for inclusion in the First Folio may be why Shakespeare would become known almost exclusively as a playwright thereafter. His poems would be reintegrated into his works only at the end of the 18th century, by which time interest was greater in the sonnets than in the narrative poetry (see “Scandalous Sonnets”).


A prefatory letter addressed to readers of the First Folio founds a lasting story about Shakespeare in describing him as an easy writer who did not revise. There is much evidence that Shakespeare revised his plays.

Prefatory content in the First Folio told other stories about Shakespeare that would last. Heminge and Condell claimed that Shakespeare wrote easily, almost without “blot” (i.e., without revising or crossing out any false starts). They characterized him as a “happie imitator of Nature”: the view that Shakespeare represents characters naturalistically, as though they were “real” people, persists to this day. One version of this idea, in which Shakespeare was seen as an uneducated conduit of nature, would often be used to criticize him in the 18th century.


A prefatory poem by Ben Jonson likewise makes a lasting claim in describing Shakespeare’s relevance as transcending cultural change: “not of an age, but for all time!”

In a famous poem in the prefatory material, Ben Jonson, also Shakespeare’s colleague, described him as “not of an age, but for all time!” This view of Shakespeare as endlessly satisfying, as producing works whose value is unlimited by cultural constraints, has also lasted. As Time’s Pencil  shows, ideas about Shakespeare and the values of his work have in fact shifted radically over time, and many cultures at different times have found cause for criticism of Shakespeare’s works or for the uses to which he has been put. Yet, often through the radical changes to his work and through reception energized by criticism as well as praise, Shakespeare’s plays and poems have been continuously read for over 400 years. The First Folio made that possible.

The publishers of the First Folio were ambitious: we believe they printed around 750 copies. 235 still survive.

Images of the First Folio include its famous portrait of Shakespeare and title page; Heminge and Condell’s prophetic appeal to “the Great Variety of Readers,” with their praise of Shakespeare as an “imitator of Nature” and possessed of “easinesse” when composing; Ben Jonson’s poem praising Shakespeare as “for all time”; and the table of contents, with Troilus and Cressida  omitted.

Shakespeare's First Folio