Seventy-nine. In the same year the Folger Shakespeare Library turns seventy-nine years old, it updates a number that since the founding of the library has helped define the strength of its collection. It’s the number that was found on all the brochures, ads, encyclopedia articles, and websites. Seventy-nine was, until a few months ago, the official number of First Folios held at the Folger.
Printed in 1623, the First Folio was the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Not only did it preserve eighteen plays that had not yet been printed, the portrait on its title page remains the most iconic representation of Shakespeare. Over the centuries the First Folio has become one of the most famous and valuable books in the world. While the Folger’s founders, Henry and Emily Folger, acquired a rich collection of artifacts related to Shakespeare and his time, their great love was clearly the First Folio.
Sometime around 1924, Henry Folger began numbering his First Folios. The numbers were not random, but were based on his assessment of a combination of their value, condition, and completeness of the copy.
All told, the Folgers counted seventy-nine First Folios. Thus, this became the official total. This number, however, did not take into account sets of fragments acquired by the Folgers that, although not bound as single volumes, were in some cases more complete than copies counted in the seventy-nine. Questions about how to treat the fragments led to debate over just how many First Folios the Folger Shakespeare Library owned.
In 1990, while working at the Folger as a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, Peter W. M. Blayney devised a system of reference for the First Folio fragments. He named the three most complete sets after the color of their binding and housing, and informally gave each set a First Folio copy number: the Burgundy Fragments (Copy 80), Red Fragments (Copy 81), and Green Fragments (Copy 82). In 1991, when Blayney curated a Folger exhibition on the First Folio, he made note of the overlooked fragments in his accompanying book, The First Folio of Shakespeare. He noted that “the red set as a whole is more complete than four of the numbered copies, and even the green set is more complete than copies 66 and 74.” 1 He then answers the question “How many copies did Folger collect” with the following: “Whether or not the three major collections of uncatalogued leaves are ever formally defined and listed as ‘copies’, they deserve at least to be counted as copies—in which case the best strictly numerical answer to the question is 82.” 2
In a 1996 Shakespeare Quarterly article titled, “How Many First Folios Does the Folger Hold?”Anthony James West expanded upon Blayney’s argument, demonstrating that the Burgundy Fragments (Copy 80) has 387 leaves, or 89% of the original 445 text leaves, the Red Fragments (Copy 81) has 299 leaves or 67%, and the Green Fragments (Copy 82) has 210 leaves or 47%. 3 In comparison, Copy 74 has only 193 leaves (43%) and Copy 66 has only 168 leaves (38%). Ultimately, West concludes “Like Blayney, I count all three as copies. With these three, we can say that the Folger holds eighty-two copies of the First Folio.” 4
This past year, as preparations intensified for the summer exhibition on the First Folio, Folger staff revisited the question of how many First Folios the Folger actually owns. For years we’d been qualifying the count: “seventy-nine—eighty-two if you count fragments.” We were ready to make the change and the exhibition seemed like the perfect occasion. So, last spring Folger staff cataloged the three most complete sets of First Folio fragments, bringing the official number at the Folger from seventy-nine to eighty-two. Cataloging these fragments not only answers the question of “how many,” it brings this hidden collection into the view of researchers. These fragments, some of which contain interesting manuscript annotations and other copy-specific information, are now fully described in the Folger’s on-line library catalog, Hamnet, and are therefore more accessible to Folger readers. You may view the records here:
STC 22273 Fo.1 no.80, formerly known as the Burgundy Fragments
STC 22273 Fo.1 no.81, formerly known as the Red Fragments
STC 22273 Fo.1 no.82, formerly known as the Green Fragments
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Thanks for pointing out the coincidence of the formerly-canonical 79 changing during the Folger’s 79th year! I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t noticed that.
Erin Blake — August 24, 2011