4 Fun Facts About the First Folio

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December 8, 2023
4 Fun Facts About the First Folio
Jamie Litton

2023 marked 400 years since the publishing of the First Folio, a definitive collection of William Shakespeare’s plays. In Shakespeare’s time, the word “folio” referred to the size of the printing paper, making for large and luxurious books owned primarily by those with wealth and status. Shakespearean scholars often credit the First Folio with turning Shakespeare into the cultural force he is today. Without this famous book, Shakespeare might have become only a footnote in the history of theater and literature rather than a staple of core curriculum and a perpetual influence on modern entertainment. To celebrate 400 years since its publishing, we have collected four fun facts you may not have known about the First Folio.

1. It was compiled and edited by Shakespeare’s friends.

While there is still some mystery surrounding the creation of the First Folio, we know that John Heminge and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues in the theater, began putting the Folio together shortly after Shakespeare’s death.1 The duo prefaced the Folio by describing themselves as the “guardians” of Shakespeare’s work, claiming that they labored over the Folio’s production “only to keep the memory of so worthy a Friend, and Fellow alive, as was our SHAKESPEARE.”

However, they also spend some time in the preface urging potential buyers to hurry up and hand over their money, as it seems they were concerned that people would browse through the Folio without purchasing it. This worry isn’t altogether unfounded, since scholars estimate that the process of publishing the Folio was very expensive, but it does feed some debate about the editors’ true motivation behind the project.2

Title page of Shakespeare's first Folio

2. It is our most reliable source.

There are no surviving original Shakespeare manuscripts, meaning that our only sources are works that were published by others. Earlier quartos—smaller editions in comparison to the grander folio—are referred to by scholars as “good quartos” and “bad quartos.” Bad quartos are thought to be unauthorized, pirated, or unreliable. John Heminge and Henry Condell worked to ensure the authenticity of the First Folio collection by bringing together good quartos, unpublished manuscripts, and working drafts.1

The process was long and tedious, involving legal and financial issues. One play, Troilus and Cressida, was acquired so late in the Folio’s production that it is not included in the table of contents!3 There are also countless inconsistencies between the first printed editions of the Folio because the editors would not restart production when an error was found, instead keeping the imperfect pages and continuing to print after fixing their mistake. This led to every copy containing a different variety of errors.4 Despite this messy start, the First Folio remains the most reliable Shakespeare collection ever made.

3. It gave us a Shakespeare portrait.

The First Folio contains the first publicly distributed depiction of Shakespeare, printed in an uncommonly large size on the title page. The engraving, created by Martin Droeshout, is believed to have been based on one or more portraits of Shakespeare that existed at the time, although we are uncertain to what extent the image was copied. Historically, critics have judged the portrait harshly, claiming that the proportions and use of light indicate an unskilled artist who may not have captured the Bard’s true likeness.5

But accuracy aside, the Folio portrait is one of only three works of art that claim to depict the real Shakespeare, (along with the Chando’s Portrait, on which the Folio engraving was likely based, and the highly controversial bust that resides at his funerary monument in Stratford-upon-Avon). Adding to the intrigue of the Folio’s opening pages, a poem was placed opposite the substantial portrait, titled “To the Reader” by Shakespeare’s friend and rival playwright, Ben Jonson. The poem discourages readers from paying too much attention to the image, saying, “look, not on his picture, but his book.”


4. It saved many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays.

Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays — and likely more when we consider collaborations and works that may have been lost following his death in 1616. Although the First Folio contains 36 plays, 18 of them had never been published before 1623. Thanks to the Folio, some of Shakespeare’s most famous and impactful plays were saved from becoming lost to history, including Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest. Additionally, the First Folio is responsible for how we now categorize the plays as being either comedies, histories, or tragedies.1 Shakespeare likely never imagined his work being published and distributed on such a large scale, but whether the Folio editors chose to pursue the task for the purpose of monetary gain or memorialization, we are grateful that they did. The First Folio was an imperfect book containing the works of a literary genius, without which our world would be markedly different, even four centuries later.


1. Folger: “The Shakespeare First Folio”

2. Smithsonian Magazine: “What is Shakespeare’s First Folio?”

3. Folger: “An Introduction to this Text: Troilus and Cressida”

4. Folio 400: “Printing Shakespeare”

5. Shakespeare’s Globe: “What went wrong with Shakespeare’s Folio Picture?”