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What is The First Folio? Who made it and why is it so important? Don’t worry, we didn’t know either…
A folio is a large book, owned only by the incredibly wealthy. It gets its name from the way the paper is folded to make the book: it is folded only once.
It was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, and is the first folio ever published dedicated solely to plays, as plays weren’t considered literature back then!
In total, Shakespeare wrote around 37 plays… 36 of them are in the First Folio!
At Shakespeare North we’re lucky to have a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio on loan from The British Library that’s available to view this month as part of Shakespeare’s First Folio: 400 Years On 19th October-11th November.
So why is it so important? Well…The plays only survived because they were published! Without the First Folio, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays (Including: Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and The Tempest) Might never have survived! Imagine a world where we didn’t know who Shakespeare was! (We couldn’t…)
WHO PUBLISHED THE FIRST FOLIO?
John Heminge and Henry Condell oversaw the collection and printing of the folio (they were friends of Shakespeare!) It was them who divided the plays into three categories: “COMEDIES, HISTORIES & TRAGEDIES” – as displayed on the title page. Scholars still use these classifications to this day!
FUN FACT: The Historical plays are presented in the chronological order of the featured kings’ reigns.
A RUFF DEPICTION
On the front of the First Folio is a portrait of Shakespeare himself, created by artist Martin Doeshout. This portrait is one of the few depictions of Shakespeare that is believed to be accurate: as it was approved by the publishers!
It is believed that around 750 First Folios were printed – less than a third of which are known to have survived. No two editions of the First Folio are alike, due to differences in how they were printed and how they have been handled over the years: so each one is unique!
So how much would a copy of the First Folio set you back? Well, we don’t know for sure… But scholar Peter Blayney predicted that a bound copy would cost around 20 shillings (That’s about £160 in today’s money!)
Be sure to come and see the first folio, for yourself! It’ll be displayed in our exhibition gallery from October 19th to November 11th – you don’t want to miss it!
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Shakespeare’s First Folio will be displayed in our exhibition gallery from October 19th, so we wanted to talk a little about its connection to the slave trade, and how the wider history of Britain and colonialism played a part in the story.
Shakespeare was established as the national bard during the 18th century. During this same period, Britain’s dominance in the transatlantic slave trade increased significantly.
The number of enslaved people carried by British ships doubled – going from around 410,000 to over 830,000.
The history of the First Folio sparks debates regarding those who profited from the slave trade. Historian Eric Williams argued that it fuelled Britain’s industrial revolution, which in turn led to the printing and production of famous works.
The profits from plantation estates allowed the well-off to purchase extravagant goods, including valuable books like the First Folio. Then, with time, the folio increased in value: ensuring that those who profited from slavery would continue to benefit for generations to come.
The First Folio’s preservation of Shakespeare’s writing and legacy contrasts with the hushed narratives of countless untold stories, especially those of former slaves, who played a crucial role in the folio’s history yet remain voiceless.
Copies of the First Folio continue to sell for astronomical sums – with one selling in 2020 for $9.9 million. This sale was the first time in 20 years that a First Folio was sold at auction – a couple hundred of them are still out there, hidden in private collections.
To learn more, check out Emma Smith’s article in The Guardian:
“Follow the money: the story of slavery and Shakespeare’s First Folio” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/apr/21/slavery-and-shakespeares-first-folio?CMP=share_btn_tw
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