The First Folio
The First Folio At West Chester University
When William Shakespeare died in 1616, many in the London theater world felt the loss. John Heminge and Henry Condell, friends of Shakespeare and fellow members of the King’s Men acting troupe, decided to publish an anthology of his plays to honor the playwright’s legacy.
Despite the claim that their collection was complete, Heminge and Condell selected only thirty-six of Shakespeare’s plays. Half of these had never been previously published, and in some cases the collection is the only record of their existence. The classic Macbeth is among those titles saved from obscurity in what became known as the First Folio, referring to the technique of folding each sheet of paper once to make four pages.
Much like a stage production, the ambitious undertaking required many people to make it happen. A group of London stationers, sometimes called a “syndicate,” worked together to bring the project to life. Printer William Jaggard was a member of the Stationers Company guild and purchased the position of the Printer to the City of London in 1610. He had already established a connection to the theater world by acquiring the exclusive right to publish playbills. When William lost his eyesight late in life, his son Isaac joined him in running the business. Printing of the Folio began at the Jaggards’ shop in 1622, but work was interrupted several times to free up the press for other projects. Aiding the Jaggards in the book’s publishing was Edward Blount, who also owned a bookshop in St. Paul’s Churchyard. The exact motivation for Blount’s investment in the Folio is unclear; the work differed greatly from the continental literature he usually published. Two final publishers are listed in the Folio’s colophon. William Aspley and John Smithweeke owned the rights to a few of the plays to be included, and it appears they sold these rights for a share of the Folio’s profits. The print run of the completed book, entitled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, seems to have been around 750, although estimates vary.
In addition to the plays themselves, the Folio’s preliminary material has drawn much scholarly attention and interest. It is this material that nudges Shakespeare the man into the spotlight. Despite his prolific literary output, nothing survives of Shakespeare’s personal correspondence. We do not know what he was like behind the quill and are reliant on the testimonies of those who knew him. On the book’s title page is an engraving of Shakespeare by Flemish artist Martin Droeshout, thought to be the only accurate likeness of the playwright, and subsequently the most famous representation. On the opposing leaf, a poem by fellow London dramatist Ben Jonson comments on the engraving, wishing that it could have captured Shakespeare’s wit. Alas, he writes, the works in the Folio are the next best thing to experiencing the man himself.
For all the work Heminge and Condell put into arranging and selecting the plays, there was no guarantee that the book would be successful. It was a popular belief at the time that plays were not of sufficient literary quality to merit treatment in glamorous folios. This honor (and expense) was usually reserved for legal and religious texts. Shakespeare’s plays that had previously appeared in print were often in the quarto format, made by folding each sheet of paper in half twice to create eight pages. The nearly one hundred editions of these quarto plays were inexpensive and sold well, although they lacked the prestige of larger formats like the folio. Early seventeenth-century printing was a risky endeavor in general; it was not certain that a book would sell enough copies to recoup the initial investment of those involved in its production.
Folio scholar Anthony James West estimates that it cost about 7 shillings to print each copy of the book, and that they were then sold for 15 shillings unbound. In fact, this is the price paid by the Folio’s first documented buyer, Sir Edward Dering, in December 1623. The affluent Dering is representative of the early purchasers, many of whom came from the ranks of wealthy clergy and the nobility.
Though the First Folio has reached the stratosphere of value in the book market, it cannot actually be classified as a rare book. Approximately 240 surviving copies are known. The Folger Library in Washington, DC is the largest single holder, with 82 copies. Many are found in universities around the world, including right here at West Chester.
The Francis Harvey Green First Folio came to the United States after New York businessman Darwin P. Kingsley (1857-1932) purchased it from the famed London bookdealer Bernard Quaritch in 1895. It moved through private collections before its acquisition, along with copies of all three of the subsequent seventeenth century Shakespeare Folios, by William Pyle Philips (1882-1950). Philips, a lawyer and banker based in New York, was the son of George Morris Philips, the principal of the West Chester Normal School. While a student there, Philips honed his interest in English literature under the inspiring instruction of Dr. Francis Harvey Green. These meaningful connections no doubt influenced the younger Philips’s decision to bequeath an entire set of Folios to the school, then known as West Chester State Teachers College, upon his death in 1950. According to a pamphlet published by the University in 1952 to mark the bequest, Philips had informed Green of his intent to name the Folio collection in the latter’s honor. Green was said to be thrilled at the association of his name with Shakespeare. Today Francis Harvey Green is the namesake of the Folios and the library in which they reside.
The first documented owner of WCU’s First Folio was Richard Oswald (1705-1784), a wealthy Scottish merchant and politician. The bookplate from his Ayrshire estate, Auchincruive, remains inside the front cover. Oswald’s political career took him to Paris, where, in addition to forming an acquaintance with Benjamin Franklin, he served as a British representative of the peace negotiations between Britain and America in 1782. The volume is bound in red Moroccan leather, decorated with gold- and blind-tooling and gilt edges. This binding is attributed to the London bindery Zaehnsdorf, and the matching leather case to Manhattan firm Bradstreet’s.
At the time of the Folio’s publication, Shakespeare was not yet the legendary figure he would become. His iconic status grew slowly over the next few centuries, coinciding with the rise of the antiquarian book market in England and the advent of bibliographic study. Arguably, however, the legend begins in the Folio, with Heminge and Condell’s introductory letter. It is an invitation to all to read their friend’s works “againe and againe,” confident that readers will find enough both to draw their attention and to hold it, for Shakespeare’s wit can “no longer lie hid than it can be lost.” In time, the First Folio, part anthology and part eulogy, crystalized William Shakespeare’s place in the pantheon of theater.
Much of the information in this essay was adapted from the following sources:
- Haverford College, William Pyle Philips, 1882-1950; with an Introductory Essay and a Catalogue to His Rare Book Collection. 1952.
- Smith, Emma. The Making of Shakespeare's First Folio. 2015.
- West, Anthony James. The Shakespeare First Folio: The History of the Book. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Philly First Folios
On this website you can explore the six "Philly First Folios," turning the pages of full digital facsimiles.
- You will also find a calendar of related events taking place throughout the year at the six institutions with a First Folio in the Philadelphia area. Each copy of the First Folio is a unique object with its own history and its own stories to tell.
- We hope you enjoy exploring these Philadelphia treasures, and we hope to see you at some of our exciting upcoming events