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The Collation

Sophisticating the First Folio

This week we will continue our discussion of the First Folios currently on display in the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition, First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour. This post will look at their “sophistication.”

A “sophisticated” or made-up book is a defective book that has been perfected with leaves supplied from other copies, or from a pen or printed facsimile. Missing leaves in a book are the most likely motivation for its sophistication although, other explanations exist.1 It is, in any case, the reason why all the copies of the First Folio currently on display, like the rest of the First Folio collection at the Folger Library, have been sophisticated.

First Folios were sophisticated from the late eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, when collectors had a heightened desire to own a complete or ‘perfect’ First Folio no matter how this perfection was achieved. By the late 1700s, most surviving First Folios had already ‘suffered’ the vagaries of time. Environment (temperature, humidity, leaking roofs, etc.) and use (frequent turning of pages, opening and closing of the book, etc.) were determining factors in the deterioration of the binding and the text block of these books.

The First Folio was a book that people actively read in the early modern period; it was not simply a fixture of decoration. In her post last week, Heather Wolfe discussed the practice of reading plays from the First Folio with a group of people. Such activity could take place in various rooms of the household. In the supplement to his First Folio facsimile including the first census of copies extant, Sidney Lee refers to the eighteenth-century Shakespearean editor George Steevens who attributed the poor state of some First Folio copies to their presence on the dining table of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century country houses, where someone probably read from the book while others were eating, similar to reading practices in certain religious orders.  Steevens reported finding crumbs of food in a number of First Folios he examined.2

When taking into account the factors highlighted above, the leaves of First Folios most likely to get loose and most frequently missing (often in tandem) are those in the preliminary section (the title page, the dedications, etc) and in the play Cymbeline, which comes at the end of the book. Finding replacement leaves in other copies of the First Folio became increasingly difficult, since the copies used to sophisticate others often had these leaves missing too. This must explain why out of 18 First Folios I examined only three had their missing leaves in either of these two sections of the book supplied from other Folio copies. The others all had their leaves supplied in printed or manuscript facsimile.

By contrast, leaves missing from elsewhere in the volume were frequently supplied from other copies. Several booksellers appear to have cornered the market on defective First Folios, which they either perfected and then sold at a high price, or used to make-up other copies.3 Both cases are illustrated in the Folios currently on display: many of them have less than a dozen leaves supplied while a small group of copies are more heavily made-up. Folio number 36, for example, is made-up from at least five different copies.

The amount and quality of sophistication greatly varies from copy to copy. Several factors explain such variation. The first one is clearly the physical condition of the Folio and how incomplete it was just before being sophisticated. The skills of the ‘sophisticator’ and the intention of the sophistication also played a role.

As we have seen, missing leaves were often supplied from printed facsimiles. At least five reproductions of the First Folio were produced in the nineteenth century. Publishers of these books used the latest technology available to them with mixed results.4

Title page from the 1807 First Folio facsimile. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 22273 Fo.1 no.59

Title leaf in Folio number 59 supplied from the 1807 First Folio facsimile. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 22273 Fo.1 no.59

In 1902, Sidney Lee published a facsimile with the most accurate photographic reproductions of a First Folio ever done, by using the collotype process, the same process that until at least the 1950s was also employed for high-end reproductions of works of art.

Numerous leaves in our First Folios were also supplied in pen facsimile. These varied in quality. In some cases, the intention was simply to supply the missing text while in others it was to mimic a printed leaf.

STC 22273 Fo.1 no.59

A manuscript leaf supplying the missing text in Folio number 59, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 22273 Fo.1 no.59


STC 22273 Fo.1 no.62

Detail showing how carefully a manuscript hand imitated the printed type missing. Folger Shakespeare Libary, STC 22273 Fo.1 no.62

The nineteenth-century copyist John Harris (who was an artist by training) worked on numerous First Folios making exact pen copies of original leaves, which are difficult to identify as facsimile.5 Some of his copies were lithographed on rag paper to ease their reproduction process, making things even more confusing.

 Missing leaves supplied from other copies usually came from other First Folios. One copy on display (Folio number 71), however, has leaves supplied from a Second Folio, counterfeited in manuscript to look like a First Folio. John Carter, in his ABC for Book Collectors, has some rather damning words for such a practice: “Making-up with leaves from a copy of a different (usually later) edition—i.e. faking-up—is a bibliographical felony and valid grounds for divorce between buyer and seller.”6

Many of the First Folios currently on display have leaves combining all of the above sophistications. For example, some have leaves supplied partly in facsimile, partly with some genuine fragments of First Folio leaves. Ingenuity didn’t have limits when it came to fixing a First Folio. Hence, Folio number 33 has a genuine portrait of Shakespeare inlaid into a facsimile title leaf.

A geniune portrait of Shakespeare inlaid in a facsimile of the title page. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 22273 Fo.1 no.33

A genuine portrait of Shakespeare inlaid in a facsimile of the title page. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 22273 Fo.1 no.33

Damaged leaves (original to the copy or supplied from another one), also found in great numbers in our copies, were given the same treatment as missing leaves and were often restored with portions of printed or pen facsimiles.

Over time, Henry Folger became very skilled at detecting how the copies he purchased had been sophisticated, and became critical of such practice. He wrote to a correspondent in 1912 about Folio number 50, “it is of course a made-up copy, and further the repairs have been done most skillfully—in fact I wish they had not been so clever as they make me suspect there are defects which the ordinary examiner will not find.” Writing to the firm of Bernard Quaritch about Folio number 68 in 1924, he wrote that after having examined the copy, “I was disappointed … to find the first and last leaves mounted, and on glancing through the book to that page X3 had the lower corner restored and extended. So I cannot speak of the book as absolutely untouched, but must acknowledge that it has had some restoration.”

Such criticism was used by Folger to negotiate a lower buying price with dealers (they seemed to have always granted this to him, albeit sometimes after bitter discussion) rather than to turn down a First Folio. What is clear, though, is that by the time Henry and Emily Folger built their collection of First Folios, it was almost impossible to find a copy of a First Folio that had not been “sophisticated” in some way.

The First Folio is far from being the only book of which copies have been sophisticated but it is an extreme example of such practice and this tells us a lot about the long history of its reception.


  1. See Margaret Lane Ford’s article “Deconstruction and Reconstruction: Detecting and Interpreting Sophisticated Copies”
  2. Sidney Lee, Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: a supplement to the reproduction in facsimile of the first folio edition (1623), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902, p.10
  3. Lee, Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies, p.12
  4. Elizabeth DeBold’s blog post on the case of Folio number 33 explores this issue further.
  5. See Sarah Werner’s blog post on pen facsimiles of early print.
  6. John Carter, ABC for Book Collectors, New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press ; London : British Library, 2004. p.147


As an antiquarian bookseller who has dealt with 16th and 17th century significant works, I have generally seen items more in terms of content and condition. My associate, Linda S. Moore, on the other hand who has exercised the kind of eagle eyed approach that is essential in noting all sorts of sophisticated works by not only collectors but bookbinders and booksellers. We prefer to be exact in our noting any imperfection including any subsequent work from bindings, new end papers and a host of subsequent approaches. With all that in mind, this article gives us both a further pause to consider the need to exercise the greatest care in collation since clearly the work being done at the Folger is on the cutting edge of what serious bibliographer, librarian or bookseller should make their first priority.
Richard Murian, Alcuin Books

Richard Murian — December 13, 2016


Interesting that this practice is termed “sophisticating” rather than the more accurate “faking up” as you quote John Carter saying. But it’s apparently a common use of the word, which I hadn’t known before. Definition 1 in the OED under “sophisticate” reads “To mix (commodities) with some foreign or inferior substance; to render impure in this way; to adulterate.” Definition 2 is “To corrupt or spoil by admixture of some baser principle or quality; to render less genuine or honest.”

William Ingram — December 13, 2016


I would be interested in a discussion of how the various facsimile reproductions of First Folios have dealt with the sophistication in each case. I’d guess most of them don’t mention it (and perhaps were not aware of it).

John Lancaster — December 13, 2016


Charlton Hinman, compiler of the famous Norton Facsimile, was definitely aware of the practice of sophistication, and completely untroubled by it. Indeed, he went one better: the Norton Facsimile doesn’t reproduce a specific First Folio. It’s an ideal created from thirty different First Folios. As explained on the Norton website, “When it was published in 1968, The Norton Facsimile set a new standard for scholarly accuracy. It was the first facsimile in which every page had been selected from a large number of copies in an attempt to find a clean, clear example with minimal show-through. Even more important, it offered the latest, most corrected state of pages known to vary from copy to copy because of correction at press.” (, accessed 13 December 2016)

Erin Blake — December 13, 2016


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