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The Shakespeare First Folio

portrait of Shakespeare on the title page

What is a First Folio?

The First Folio of Shakespeare, published in 1623, is an extraordinary book. About half of Shakespeare’s plays had never previously appeared in print, including As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Tempest, and many more. Without the First Folio, 18 plays might have been lost forever. Learn more about this remarkable book—and the Folger’s collection of First Folios, the largest in the world.

The First Folio is the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays, produced seven years after his death. Its title is Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, and it groups his plays into those categories—comedies, histories, and tragedies—for the first time.

Frequently asked questions

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Inside the First Folio

Flip through the pages of one of the First Folios in the Folger collection. Read a First Folio online

Title page and poem

These two pages include a poem, “To the Reader,” by Shakespeare’s fellow playwright and friendly rival, Ben Jonson. Jonson writes about the title page’s engraved portrait of Shakespeare, noting that it can only show us Shakespeare’s appearance, not “his wit.” He advises the reader seeking to know Shakespeare to “look, not on his picture, but his book.”

The engraving is an important image, however. It’s one of the few portraits of Shakespeare to have been approved by those who had known Shakespeare themselves. It is credited to the artist Martin Droeshout in the small text just below it.

On the title page, the name “Shakespeare” is as large as one line of type can be, showing that it was a major selling point even years after his death. The full title of the First Folio includes the three categories into which the First Folio divided the plays: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Tragedies, & Histories.

First Folio title page

John Heminge and Henry Condell’s address to readers

To the great variety of readers

In this address to potential purchasers, John Heminge and Henry Condell begin with a lively sales pitch, writing “buy it first.” They also praise how perfectly Shakespeare wrote out his plays. “His mind and hand went together,” they explain. “We have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.” Most researchers take these and other statements with a grain of salt.

Heminge and Condell had worked with Shakespeare for years and, like him, were actors and shareholders in the King’s Men. By the time of the First Folio, Heminge was the company’s business manager. Shakespeare left money to both men in his will to buy memorial rings, a sign that he considered them good friends.

“Sweet Swan of Avon”

In addition to the short verse that appears next to the title page, Ben Jonson wrote another poem for the First Folio. The second page of the poem, shown here, famously describes Shakespeare as the “Sweet Swan of Avon.”

Shakespeare’s later plays were performed at the Globe, across the River Thames from the city—thus making them “flights upon the banks of the Thames,” in Jonson’s image of Shakespeare as a swan. Jonson calls Shakespeare the “Sweet Swan of Avon,” however, not the Thames, because Shakespeare was from Stratford, a town on the River Avon.

As for “Eliza and our James”? They are Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, King James I, who was also King James VI of Scotland. Elizabeth and James reigned during Shakespeare’s career.

Sweet Swan of Avon

Grouping Shakespeare’s plays: The table of contents

Heminge and Condell grouped Shakespeare’s plays in the First Folio into three categories for the first time: the comedies, the histories, and the tragedies. They named the history plays according to the kings who reigned during the events in the plays and put the plays in the order of the kings’ reigns. Most of the history plays that were previously printed were already named for kings, but not all of them.

They also made sure to place a “new” play (one that wasn’t already available in print in a quarto) at the start of both the comedies and the tragedies. The Tempest leads off the comedies, even though Shakespeare wrote it late in his career, while Coriolanus heads the tragedies.

You may notice there are only 35 plays listed, even though there are 36 plays in the First Folio. That’s because the publishers obtained the rights to Troilus and Cressida very late in the process—too late to include it on this page, which was already printed by then. Although it’s not named here, the text for Troilus and Cressida appears in the First Folio after Henry VIII and before Coriolanus.

List of actors

The 26 actors listed here, including Shakespeare himself, were the first to bring Shakespeare’s plays to life on the stage. Since women did not appear on the stage, men and boys played all of the male and female parts.

We can’t be sure of all the parts that each one played, but we know that Richard Burbage usually took the leading roles, including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Richard III, and, according to at least one scholar, Romeo. It’s believed the well-known comic actor William Kemp probably portrayed Falstaff, Bottom, Dogberry, and other comedic roles.

Our knowledge of these actors is not limited to lists of players like this one. Scholars have also found windows onto the close-knit world of the King’s Men through business documents, wills, marriage records, and even lawsuits.