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Shakespeare in print /

DIY First Folio

Early modern print showing a working printing press in a workshop

Printing folios in Shakespeare’s time

You’ve read Shakespeare’s plays. You’ve seen them performed. Maybe you’ve even flipped through the Folger digital copy of his famous First Folio. Why not learn more about how William and Isaac Jaggard printed the earliest collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays and make your own digital copy? Here we introduce you to the working knowledge of early modern printers through interactive exercises and downloadable content.

How the First Folio was printed

The First Folio was produced in William and Isaac Jaggard’s printing house between 1622 and 1623. Early modern printing houses were noisy, smelly, crowded spaces, requiring long hours of repetitive hard labor over the hand-presses. We can spare you all that, as we work with twenty-first century technologies to introduce aspects of seventeenth-century craftsmanship.

Our focus here is on the unexpected ways these pages were printed—out of sequence—in order to assemble the book for reading—in the right sequence.

Today, we would typically describe the length of a book by the number of pages. In early modern England, printers described the length of a book by the number of sheets (which we’ll explore below). Printers were responsible for supplying the paper, and estimated a print job by the number of sheets required. Printers also had to decide what size book to produce. That would determine how many pages would be printed on a single sheet of paper and how many sheets of paper would be folded together to create one “gathering” to be stitched together and possibly bound.

“Folio” refers to the size of a book that results from printing two pages side-by-side on a sheet of paper, front and back, and folding the sheet once vertically.  A typical single sheet, so printed and folded, is a “bifolium.”

A printing press from Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises. Folger Shakespeare Library. M3014.
The First Folio of William Shakespeare. Folger Shakespeare Library. STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68.

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies is a “folio in sixes.” That print job required almost 230 sheets of paper. But those sheets were not printed as a bifolium usually was, with two “leaves” and four “pages” printed as one unit. Rather, the basic building block for this print job was a set of three sheets of paper printed on both sides and then nested together for a “gathering.” That yields six “leaves” or twelve “pages.”

Let’s continue into the virtual printing house to unmake and remake the book, turning a page-by-page view into a sheet-by-sheet view and then a view of a gathering.

Virtual printing house

Folger Shakespeare Library. STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68.

Download the First Folio

In the virtual printing house, today’s technology sheds light on yesterday’s craftsmanship. Like early modern artisans, however, you may want to experience the First Folio’s structure by holding some pages in your hands. Download and print these high-resolution digital images from Folger Folio copy 68 to make your own paper facsimile.

Collation statement
The Tempest
Troilus and Cressida opening pages (x3!)
Troilus and Cressida rest of the play

PDFs are designed to be printed double sided, with ‘flip on short side’ selected. You will want to experiment with your own printer’s requirements for double-sided printing for best results.

Learn more about early modern printing with DIY Quarto

Folger Shakespeare Library. STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68.

Learn More about the First Folio

Websites and Videos About Printing Shakespeare’s First Folio

First Folio Facts from the University of Arizona:

Folger Shakespeare Library, “Printing 101”:

How to read a collation statement: 

List of digitized First Folios:

Royal Shakespeare Company, “Printing the First Folio”:

Books About Shakespeare’s First Folio

Blayney, Peter. The First Folio of Shakespeare. Folger Shakespeare Library, March 1991.

Erne, Lukas. Shakespeare and the Book Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Hooks, Adam. Selling Shakespeare: Biography, Bibliography, and the Book Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Kastan, David. Shakespeare and the Book. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Smith, Emma. The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2015.

Stern, Tiffany. “From Stage to Printing House.” Making Shakespeare: From Stage to Page. New York: Routledge, 2004. 137-59.

About DIY First Folio

DIY First Folio developed out of conversations among college faculty and Folger staff during the Folger Institute’s 2016–17 micro-grant project, Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. That project was an outgrowth of the Folger’s national initiative to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, The Wonder of Will: 400 Years of Shakespeare.

Kathleen Lynch and Kyle Vitale, Editors
Rebecca Niles, Virtual Printing House Designer and Developer
Meaghan Brown, Digital Coordinator
Stacey Redick, Information Architect