400 Hundred Years of Shakespeare’s First Folio

1623 saw the publication of one of the most famous books in the English speaking world without which, many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar, would have been lost. Published seven years after William Shakespeare’s death, it was primarily the painstaking work of two of his actor colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, both of whom are buried at St Mary Aldermanbury, in the City of London, where their memorial can be found.

The Memorial of John Heminges and Henry Condell in the City of London. Creative Commons

The Folio format was a highly prestigious and expensive publication, with each sheet of paper folded just once, creating a very large book. The finished copies contained over 900 pages, including dedicatory verses by Ben Johnson and a long dedication by the editors to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and his brother, Philip Herbert.

Shakespeare’s First folio. Creative Commons

It also features the famous engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout, a relatively young artist, probably working from an existing portrait, but who has given us the iconic image of Shakespeare with shiny bald head and slightly wonky haircut.

It is thought that a bound copy would have sold for £1 and that there were around 750 printed. The printer was William Jaggard and son, Isaac, official printers to the City of London and whose print shop address was ‘The Half Eagle and Key, Barbican”. The book was published in November 1623, excellent timing, as modern publishers know, for the Christmas rush!

Of those, 235 are known to have survived. Occasionally long forgotten copies are unearthed; as recently as 2016 in the private house of Mount Stewart on the Isle of Bute and in 2014 in a public library near Calais, France. In 2022, in the most recent sale of a privately owned First Folio, a copy sold for over £2 million at Sotheby’s.

Shakespeare’s First Folio. Public domain

For 2023, there are many exhibitions displaying copies of the First Folio in locations around the UK. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have an exhibition at New Place, Stratford upon Avon; The National Maritime Museum has a copy belonging to Dulwich College on display and, of course, the British Library. Many others will be on show in Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Leeds, to name but a few.

An excellent website dedicated to celebrating and commemorating the processes and people involved in the publication 400 years ago has been set up: www.folio400.com It includes a list of places displaying original first folios, in order of their geographical distance from the site of Jaggard’s print house. The closest, at half a mile away, is in the Guildhall Library, and the furthest, at 11,386 miles, is Auckland Libraries, New Zealand!

About the Author Helen Smith is a Heart of England professional Blue Badge Tourist Guide. Helen offers private guided tours of her home region which includes  iconic cities such as Oxford, Stratford upon Avon, Warwick, Worcester and Birmingham, as well as  the Heart of England’s stunning  countryside and its quaint villages. She has a particular expertise in Shakespeare’s life and works and delivers talks to students at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford upon Avon. Her specialist tours include Stratford upon Avon and Shakespeare, Oxford, Cotswold villages, gardens, literary sites, TV and film locations, Arts and Crafts Movement, Methodism, architecture and industrial heritage. She has a specialist endorsement to guide in Windsor and Eton and she also has training in describer tours for visually impaired people. To find out more about Helen and to book one of her tours click here