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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

400 Years of Shakespeare's First Folio

with Emma Smith

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 222

The First Folio—the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays—hit bookstores 400 years ago this November. Emma Smith of Oxford University tells us just what this famous book has been up to for the past four centuries. We explore notable collectors like Sir Edward Dering and our founders, Emily and Henry Folger; how the 18th-century slave trade supercharged the book’s value; how the 235 extant copies scattered across the world; and much more. Emma Smith is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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Emma Smith. Photo (c) John Cairns.

Emma Smith teaches Shakespeare at Oxford University and is the author of Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book. A new edition is available now from Oxford University Press. Smith is also leading a year-long scholarly program for the Folger Institute called “Next Gen Editing.”

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published November 7, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from VoiceTrax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

Previous: Shakespeare and the Bloomsbury Group, with Marjorie Garber



MICHAEL WITMORE: What can you learn from a book? Not from the words printed in it, but from the history of the book itself? And what if the book in question is 400 years old?

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the printing of Shakespeare’s First Folio. A few months ago, we heard the story of the making of the Folio from scholar Chris Laoutaris. Today, we’re going in a different direction: to find out what happened after the Folio was printed.

Over the past 400 years, the remaining copies of the First Folio have had eventful lives. Some of those adventures left visible traces—marginal notes, rings left by wineglasses, even paw prints. Others are notable for where they traveled and with whom.

Emma Smith, who teaches Shakespeare at Oxford University, will be our guide. In addition to writing a history of the production of the First Folio, Smith has written another whole book about its circulation. It’s called Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book.

Smith’s will be a familiar voice to long-time listeners—this is her fourth appearance on the show. She’s also leading a year-long scholarly program for the Folger Institute called “Next Gen Editing.”

Here’s Emma Smith, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I love that you name your introduction “Sir Edward Dering Goes Shopping.” It’s like, “Oh, it’s a Richard Scarry book.” Why do you start with the first buyer of the First Folio on December 5th, 1623? And how do you know so much about him?

EMMA SMITH: Well, we know about Edward Dering because he has had—certainly for this part of his life—the misfortune, in a way, of being known only for what he spends. It’s as if I had my biography done from my American Express statements; would be so embarrassing. People would be pouring over, you know, “Why did you spend all this money on cups of coffee? And what is all this?”

We’ve got the same for Edward Dering, who is a young Kentish gentleman. He is spending time in London and he is… he’s trying to get on really. He’s networking. He is spending to impress the circle around Buckingham and other influential people, so he’s buying a lot. He’s doing a lot of things. He’s paying money to cross the Thames by boat, money for his horses to be stabled, money for accommodation.

On the 5th of December, as you say, 1623, he is the first attested buyer of a copy of the 1623 folio, the collected edition of Shakespeare’s works. And perfectly, because he does seem such a shopaholic, he buys two copies.

BOGAEV: He did seem to be a big play buyer besides Shakespeare. And he adapted Shakespeare plays?

SMITH: That’s right. He obviously wanted, I think, to buy up as many play texts as he possibly could, because although he very rarely gives the title of those texts in his account book, he gives the number, and the number cumulatively is pretty much everything that would have been in print. He’s doing a really substantial job of buying a play library.

But he buys other stuff too. There’s a wonderful bit in his diaries, in his account books, that I just thought, “This can’t be right. This can’t say ‘false beards.’ This just can’t say ‘false beards.’ This must be a sort of secretary hand error.”

Everybody agrees. It does seem to say “false beards.” I think he was getting together some of the paraphernalia to do amateur theatricals back home in Surrenden in Kent.

Part of the evidence for that is we’ve got an amazing manuscript in the Folger Shakespeare Library of the first mash-up of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Very common in the theater since. But Edward Dering seems to have been the first person to commission that. I assume that that must have been for performance, with his friends and family back in Kent, presumably with false beards.

BOGAEV: Okay, fun. Theater-lover. Just to back up for a second, why did he record his expenses so meticulously?

SMITH: He’s trying, I think, to balance his treasury and keep a sense of what he’s spending on what.

It seems to be an important part of his identity, I guess, as a young man building himself, building the man he wants to be, through purchasing. He’s a very particular kind of early modern subject if we want to get sort of economical about it. A sort of a consumer.

BOGAEV: So, are his account books really a record of his social aspirations that way? You know, the plays are a way of establishing a pedigree?

SMITH: I think that’s a really good way to see it. If we look at his expenditure overall. I mean, what’s so brilliant about this is it enables us to nest the First Folio, which we always pluck out from any context—you know, it’s an object on its own—back in Dering’s account book, it enables us to put it back in this context of wider expenditure. What kinds of sums does he spend on clothing? Answer, huge sums. Much, much more than he spends on books. What kinds of bits and pieces is he buying?

How much does he spend on, for example, sort of, corporate entertainment, in a way. He takes people he’s trying to impress or trying to schmooze with to the theater and buys them dinner and buys them drinks and they have a convivial time.

This is all part—it’s making him sound very sort of focused and unlikable. I find him absolutely lovable with his jars of marmalade, and his sixpence to a beggar, and the money that he gives his servant for his food and so on. He’s absolutely… he’s a really accessible person from that period because he seems so recognizable.

BOGAEV: Yeah, it really puts you there. I feel as if I can imagine what it would be like right when the First Folios came out. Do we know where his First Folios are now?

SMITH: We don’t, unfortunately. There was a bubble of excitement that some theatrically marked up folio sections—which are now in Padua in Italy—might have some of the same names as are in that manuscript that I mentioned of the two parts of Henry IV. And we thought maybe this was a parallel, but it looks as if, alas, not the case.

So yeah, these have disappeared or they’ve been rebound and that link is broken.

BOGAEV: Well, the other thing I appreciate about the freshness of the account of Dering is that you take us back to this time when the First Folio wasn’t the holy artifact it is now. That’s kind of mind-bending because you say that at the beginning of your story that there was the period in the 17th century when the First Folio just was irrelevant, because it was considered a worse version of the second and third editions of it.

SMITH: That’s right. I mean, the idea that that a First Folio, this 1623 collected edition, could be losing its value, is just—is mind-blowing, isn’t it?

But yes, it’s like a… you know, it’s the book equivalent of a car. You drive it out of Paul’s Churchyard and it’s lost value. It’s become secondhand. You have to wait for it to become vintage until it gets that money back, and it’s not for 150 years.

So, we have this extraordinary early history of these books, which is all about use. Not about veneration and not about very high financial and cultural value. But just about, you know, being there in the household, in the library. Being flicked through, having food spilt on it or wine glasses put down with a ring— leaving a ring behind. Little annotations, children’s drawings, all that kind of life within the pages, which I completely love.

BOGAEV: Oh, yeah, the ephemera is great, we’re going to talk about it in a moment. But it was a depreciating asset, as my father would have said, and I wondered when did it become something worthy of collecting?

SMITH: I think it is in the 18th century. So, the sort of the late part of the 1700s. For a variety of reasons, the First Folio starts to become more valuable.

That’s partly the increasing value of Shakespeare as a cultural token, a cultural icon in Britain. The work of the actor David Garrick in bringing Shakespeare back to the stage. Other bits of evidence like the statue that we get in Westminster Abbey and Poets’ Corner and so on—“The making of the National Bard,” as Michael Dobson has put it. That’s one part of it.

There’s also a lot of consumption in the second part of the 18th century. It’s an age where people are buying lots of things and collecting becomes a new fad.

We can see that the Shakespeare First Folio starts a new fashion for English printed books, which slightly takes over from medieval manuscripts, which had been popular, and European books, which were thought to be much more important. And Shakespeare is there pushing that. We get this massive increase in prices in the last quarter of the 18th century.

BOGAEV: Well, you begin your book with the story of how the value of the First Folio starts to rocket during the 18th century, and you frame it in the context of slavery fueling that. Lay out the argument for us.

SMITH: I think this takes us back, you know, to the late 18th century when we said that the First Folio really increases in economic value and in other kinds of value. One of the reasons it does that is there is a lot more money around in Britain. And we know the reasons for that, don’t we? This is a sugar economy. This is a plantation economy. This is a slave-owning economy.

What’s happening in Britain at the moment in all kinds of ways, as we look at our historic environment, as we look at big houses and paintings and other kinds of high value cultural objects from the late 18th and into the 19th century… We’re trying to think about how we reevaluate those, given that they, in some ways, embody the profits of this terrible trade.

First Folios are absolutely part of that reckoning. We know of several owners of First Folios who were really bankrolling their collecting and their bibliophile lifestyle from plantation slavery. Including the copy that’s actually currently holds the record for the highest price, the copy that Mills College, California, sold in 2020 for just under $10 million.

We know that the 18th-century owner of that copy was a plantation slave owner. In fact, there’s a statue on his estate of a sugar loaf, showing where the money has all come from.

That’s a new area of research, I think, to think again about the provenance of these books, to think about that period in the lives of these books, and to think about how this book plays its part in that nexus of exploitation and expenditure, which so characterizes slave-fueled consumption in the 18th century.

BOGAEV: To extrapolate, likewise, the movement of these First Folios during the 18th and the 19th centuries, you write, “Track the workings of colonialism and Western wealth and privilege throughout the world.”

SMITH: There’s a really interesting way, a story that we already know, which is the work that Shakespeare does in the British Empire in the 19th century and onwards. We know that Shakespeare is one of the exports, one of the ways that British India, for example, trains and subjugates native languages and native populations, and that Shakespeare is, you know, really important in that context.

What we hadn’t really seen, I think, so much was how copies of this book, this 1623 book, in certain places are the symbol of that larger cultural force and that larger kind of cultural conquest, if you like. Particularly, copies in South Africa in Cape Town—which I just had the privilege of visiting earlier this year—and in Australia and New Zealand.

Now, the South African and the Australian ones were both given, as part of rare book collections of English material by their colonial governor, a man called George Gray. And, explicitly in each case, he gave these gifts to establish English culture at the heart of colonial government.

What to do with those books now, in the two very different contexts where they are now, in Auckland City Library and in the National Library in Cape Town, is a really, really interesting question about the sort of reckoning with the colonial past. You can imagine how it goes. In New Zealand, there’s a lot of pride, actually, in this book, a lot of interest in it. An interesting way that it’s being contextualized as the gift of George Gray.

In South Africa, really, there has been no accommodation with this book yet. It seems, a vestige of a very, very dark time in South African history, and a time from which that country has not been able really fully to escape. So, it’s a pretty neglected book.

BOGAEV: Well, this is a hard question to answer, but how are we to think then about the role the First Folios played in the globalization of Shakespeare?

SMITH: There’s a wonderful statement by the philosopher Walter Benjamin; the translation I have in my mind is, “Every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism.”

I find that such a helpful and wise way to think about these things, because it’s not that one is dominant, it’s that they are both. First Folios, I think, really come under that heading.

The spread of Shakespeare across the world has done extraordinary things and had an extraordinary wash back from indigenous talents, from local talents, and from the local element of global Shakespeare.

You know, they’re difficult objects. They’ve got a difficult story to tell, which is a story both of creative engagement and of monolingual imposition. Just as the wider story of global Shakespeare has both sides to it.

BOGAEV: Well, let’s follow this thread of collecting because it leads us to Henry Folger and his wife, Emily. Let’s dig in. First just tell us, who were Henry and Emily Folger and how did they both contribute to creating this collection?

SMITH: So, Henry Folger made his money in Standard Oil. It’s an interesting part of the history of his wealth that Standard Oil was under quite a lot of anti-monopoly pressure. Some people think that the breaking up of the company, he compensates for by gathering up, gathering together at this great library. It’s an interesting idea.

He’s interested, we know, in Shakespeare. But his wife, Emily, has done a master’s degree in Shakespeare. She has really developed that interest. Together they form this extraordinary collection focused very heavily on First Folios, although not only those books, but that has become the center of the collection.

One of the many things that’s extraordinary about the collection is that they don’t quite seem to have been wealthy enough to build it. We’ve gradually uncovered all kinds of sort of financial arrangements, borrowings, a bit of stretch to gather these books together. They were not mega-wealthy in the way that certain other American Gilded Age people were.

BOGAEV: Right. When you hear Standard Oil, you think, “Oh, he was like Henry Huntington or something.” But he wasn’t.

SMITH: Absolutely. Some of the amazing papers in the Folger Shakespeare Library now are Emily’s letters replying to charity appeals saying, “Actually, all our money is tied up in our collection. We don’t have any spare money at all to be philanthropists in the broader sense.”

They’re on a mission. They’re on a very particular mission together to create this collection that is mostly stored in storage crates, can’t be accessed.

BOGAEV: You write that, “He kept them in oil company steel containers secreted about the Manhattan, Brooklyn boroughs.”

SMITH: That’s right. They never had the pleasure of having them all out or having people around to see them. There are examples of scholars writing to say, “Can I consult this?” And, you know, one of the Folgers or the Folger  staff writing back to say, “Well, they’re not accessible.”

It was not until the library was commissioned and built in the 1930s that that the access was restored to this and the extent of this extraordinary collection could be appreciated.

It does literally raise the price. We can track the prices at auction, during the period of the Folgers’ collecting. Without doubt the avidity with which the Folgers bought up First Folios increases the price steadily.

BOGAEV: It is wild that the design of the first Folger building was meant to mimic the look of the First Folio itself. Explain that for us.

SMITH: Yeah, so the building is decorated, the façades are decorated with these engraved play titles and other quotations. But they chose the specific spelling of the folio text and also a style of lettering which mimicked that typography. So, they were deeply interested in the way that the building would be a fitting home for this book in particular.

BOGAEV: It’s wild. You described some memorable First Folio evacuations from the Folger in this chapter. During World War II, where did it go?

SMITH: Folger wanted his library to be right up there by the Capitol, right at the heart of government. He placed a lovely statue of Puck with the phrase from Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” pointing at the government and at the buildings of the political establishment.

He wanted Shakespeare to be part of that. That has been a place of danger as well as proximity, certainly during the Second World War, and then again after 9/11, various kinds of evacuation plans for this extraordinary collection.

But yeah, the idea of them all being shipped off towards Amherst College—which is the sort of parent institution now for the Folger—is very, very memorable.

BOGAEV: I want to end the collecting chapter with your really interesting saga about the Bodleian Library, how they acquired and then lost and then reacquired a First Folio. which is so wild. To think that even as late as 1905 in England it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that this library would buy a First Folio back.

SMITH: Yeah, this is a story I tell with a bit of shame. I’m sitting here in Oxford talking to you, so this is my local copy.

The Bodleian Library had a—early on in its history was very ambivalent about plays, playbooks, thinking that these were not high status, not important volumes. But they seem to have made an exception for the First Folio in 1623, which may have been exactly what the publishers we’re hoping, that the folio format would make these plays seem more significant, more important, more respectable.

So, they get a copy in at the end of 1623. It goes off to be bound at a local binders who do all the Bodleian stuff, and then it comes back and it’s chained, as books were—valuable books were in the library. We don’t know really anything else about what happens to it, except that by the 1660s, it isn’t there anymore. In its place, apparently, is a copy of the Third Folio that was published in 1663 and 1664, and which boasted seven new plays added in. You can see the marketing of the Third Folio is saying, you know, “Now, new and improved, even bigger.” The Bodleian took that as the truth about the value of these books and seems to have got rid of the first, having updated, as they would see it, to the third. Which we know other people did too. We know that Samuel Pepys trades in a copy for a later edition and so on. The general cultural view was that the later editions were going to be better. They would have been improved.

Fast forward really to 1905, when a young student at Oxford meets the librarian in his office, gets out a bag, and says, “My father wanted your advice about whether we should rebind this old book.”

The librarian sees this book: sees that this is a very distinctive 17th-century Bodleian binding. Can see the sort of bite in the cover where the chain in the chained library had been. Opens it up and sees that this is the long-lost copy of the First Folio.

BOGAEV: Their eyeballs must have just popped out of their head.

SMITH: They must have absolutely popped out of their head. They really must. They then make what I think in retrospect was a strategic error, in that they boast about it and they publish a piece in a magazine saying that this is the perfect copy: This is the copy that the publishers wanted to come to the Bodleian as the copy of record.

Now, that’s not true. There’s no reason to think that that’s true. But, in doing that, of course, they attracted our own favorite completist folio collector, Henry Folger, who feels, “Well, if this is a perfect copy, this is the one I must have.”

BOGAEV: He was always sniffing around, wasn’t he?

SMITH: So, the man who owns it—yeah, that’s right, absolutely. The man who owns it says that he’s willing to sell it and he’s willing to give the Bodleian the kind of first refusal. But then, he’s offered this very large sum of 3,000 pounds by an American gentleman. We don’t, at that point, know who it is, but it does turn out to be Henry Folger.

So, the Bodleian has set this extraordinary fundraising target. All of us who are, you know, alums of universities will bogle at the idea of a university that is not always trying to raise money from us. But really this was the case. There was no list of people who’d been to Oxford. There was no way of being in touch with them. There was none of that philanthropic apparatus.

They ask the heads of the colleges for lists of their wealthy men and the heads of the colleges write back and say, “Don’t be so vulgar. We wouldn’t dream of telling you.” They put a letter in the Times saying, “All good Englishmen, all patriotic Englishmen and Oxford men should try to keep this book in England and not see it go over to America.”

And they have a fundraising campaign that goes absolutely to the wire. But they do raise the money and the book stays in Oxford where it still is one of very few of the 220-, 230-some copies—depends a bit how much text you need to count as a copy. Very few of those are in 17th-century bindings. And so, this is important for all kinds of reasons, including that one.

BOGAEV: The upshot you write at the end of this chapter is that the story of the First Folio tracks England’s aristocratic diminishment. I read that to mean the lords and the ladies had to sell off their copies as their aristocracy crumbled.

SMITH: They absolutely do. This is a kind of story from Henry James, in a way.

What’s certainly happening in England for a variety of economic reasons is that the landed gentry are going bust really. And they’re selling off all kinds of property, paintings, books, furniture, you know.

If you want to look at what, where that is, you know, look in the Metropolitan Museum or in the Frick or in any of those collections. You can see that these are artifacts that have come from families down on their luck in the English economic context, and they’re bought by families up on their luck living the American dream.

BOGAEV: Well, the story of ownership, of course, is a story of privilege. But you do describe one exception to this, which is something that we spoke about with actor Adrian Lester recently on the podcast. His Everything for Everybody at the Birmingham Library project. Tell us about that and how did it come about, and what’s its greater significance.

SMITH: Yes, so Birmingham in the Midlands in the UK is a big industrial city, grew and grew its wealth through industrialization in the 19th century, and was a real pioneer of civic space, civic amenities. A sense that to live in Birmingham, to be a citizen of Birmingham, was to be part of this great powerhouse—global powerhouse—including culturally.

The civic elders have an idea at the end of the 19th century that they will buy a First Folio for the public library that can be accessible to all Birmingham citizens and that this will be a symbol of the investment and the confidence and the Birmingham-ness of Birmingham.

I mean, it’s a brilliant vision because it’s at a time when, not just Folger, but all these other collectors seem to be taking this book into private hands. Birmingham’s investment was absolutely extraordinary.

This brilliant project to give the Folio back to the people of Birmingham that Adrian Lester is a patron of, generated by Professor Ewan Fernie and his colleagues, has been so inspiring, because it’s been the First Folio that’s been out and about in this anniversary year. You know, everywhere else we’ve got to go to the exhibition and look in the glass case.

But they have been taking that copy out to shopping centers, to schools, to prisons. Taking it to people and saying, “This belongs to you, come and find out about it.”

BOGAEV: Well, Emma, it is so fun to talk with you again. I wish you were here every day with me on the podcast. I wish you the best.

SMITH: As you can hear, I could talk about this subject forever. I’ve really, really enjoyed the chance to chat with you about it, Barbara. Thank you.


WITMORE: That was Emma Smith, interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. A new edition of Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book is out now from Oxford University Press.

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on your podcast platform of choice, to help others find the show.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. Our building in Washington, DC has been under construction for the past three years. But we’re looking forward to fully reopening in 2024. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.