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What is a First Folio?

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What Is a First Folio, and Why Is It Important?

“First Folio” is shorthand for the “First Folio of Shakespeare’s dramatic works.” Quite simply, it refers to the first edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays. It is called a “Folio” because of the large-format size of the book, and Shakespeare was not the first author to have his collected works published in folio format. His contemporaries -- poets and playwrights Samuel Daniel, Edmund Spenser, and Ben Jonson – also had literary folios published. But, setting him apart as the foremost playwright of his day, Shakespeare’s literary “First Folio” charted new ground in being composed entirely of plays. Since its publication in 1623, the book has gained cultural significance, becoming synonymous with Shakespeare himself. Despite the first folios of Jonson and Spenser, the term “First Folio” has taken on the weight of a proper noun, and for many, there is no question that “First Folio” means Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies.

Shakespeare. Plays. 1623. London, 1623

About half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed in the smaller quarto format before his 1623 Folio, but eighteen of the plays collected in the First Folio had not previously been printed, and no known manuscripts of the plays exist. This means that, without the First Folio, those eighteen plays -- including standards like Julius Caesar and Macbeth -- may have been lost. The First Folio also holds the Droeshout portrait, one of only two portraits unambiguously identified as Shakespeare. This well-known portrait is the iconic image of Shakespeare that appears on the title page of the First Folio.
Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Julius Cæsar. Program, 1968

Folger Theatre. Macbeth. 2008. Directed by Aaron Posner and Teller, featuring Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth.

Washington DC, Folger Theatre. The Tempest. Postcard, 22 February 1993


The Shakespeare Portrait

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