Fourth Folio

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William Shakespeare, Mr. William Shakespear's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, Published according to the true Original Copies. London: H. Herringman, E. Brewster, and R. Bentley, 1685.

Image source: University of Oregon Rare Books Collection


Title page of Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio. It advertises the “seven plays, never before printed,” though in fact they were printed in the Third Folio, on which the text is based.

The Fourth Folio, published in 1685, included the same 43 plays in the same sequence as the Third – and indeed exactly echoed its claim on the title page to have “added” 7 plays “Never before Published in Folio.” These were in fact also reprinted from the Third Folio.


Printed in double columns, the expanded prefatory poems look less grand but take up less space, economical for the printer.

A further accumulation of commendatory poems in the volume’s prefatory material testifies to the ongoing and increasingly healthy industry of promoting English playwrights in impressive folio formats: the proliferation of these editions attests the legacy of Ben Jonson’s groundbreaking folio Workes of 1616. By this time, the work of other playwrights had also been published and republished in the folio format, including new editions of the works of Jonson in 1640 and 1692, of Beaumont and Fletcher in 1647 and 1679, and of William Davenant (who styled himself the illegitimate son of Shakespeare) in 1673.


Milton’s poetic tribute, still uncredited, receives visual attention in the Fourth Folio (left page); the list of actors and the table of contents are more compact and far less striking than in the prior folios (right page).

As in the Second and Third Folios, the Fourth once more made abundant changes to the text of Shakespeare’s Third Folio, on which it based its copy. Each successive Folio was thus progressively more different from the “True Originall” copy text of the First Folio, both because each corrected obvious typos, errors, and cruxes of the prior edition and because each rephrased words and lines so that they made more sense according to contemporary usage. The English language had changed substantially over the course of the 17th century and, despite the emphasis on “Originall” in the Folios’ titles, there was as yet no special premium on exactly preserving Shakespearean diction. Throughout the 17th century and in much of the 18th, making the text seem more logical, clear, and consistent with contemporary aesthetic norms (e.g. by smoothing the meter or normalizing the length of irregular lines) was itself seen as a way of producing “True Originall Copies” – honoring what Shakespeare “must” have intended, rather than preserving what was printed.

Even as such editorial norms were about to be transformed in the 18th century, the Fourth Folio would be used as the basis of the first modern edition, Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 Works (see “Shakespeare’s new texts”). While the sequence of 18th-century editors progressively gestured toward a return to earlier texts as the base copy of their editions, precisely to get “closer” to a Shakespearean original, for copyright reasons they were often still compelled to use the most recent editions instead.


The Fourth Folio, like the Third, includes plays now believed not to be by Shakespeare. Here is the opening of The History of Sir John Oldcastle, the historical figure on whom Falstaff is based.

Images of this text include the title page, with its false boast of new plays, the businesslike and compressed celebratory poems of the prefatory material (including Milton’s, with its now-famous author still not named, but more prominently placed), and the start of one of the “new” plays, The History of Sir John Oldcastle, which later ages would agree was not written by Shakespeare.

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Fourth Folio