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Publishing Shakespeare's First Folio, with Chris Laoutaris

Shakespeare's BookShakespeare Unlimited: Episode 209

2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Eighteen of those plays, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest, had never been published before they appeared in the First Folio, which means that without it, they might have been lost.

But how did the First Folio come to be? It turns out that this book’s story has enough twists to fill out a five-act play. It has its own heroes, villains, and political subtext. And the success of the Folio itself was far from a sure thing. Dr. Chris Laoutaris’s new book, Shakespeare’s Book: The Story Behind the First Folio and the Making of Shakespeare, re-examines everything we thought we knew about the publication of the First Folio, and uncovers some new information in the archives. He is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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Chris Laoutaris. Photo by Lorentz Gullachsen.

Chris Laoutaris is a biographer, historian, poet, Shakespeare scholar, and Associate Professor at The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. He is the Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Shakespeare Beyond Borders Alliance and the Co-Founder of the EQUALityShakespeare (EQUALS) initiative. He is also the author of Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. Shakespeare’s Book: The Story Behind the First Folio and the Making of Shakespeare is out now from Pegasus Books.

From our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published May 9, 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 Melvin Rickarby in Stratford-upon-Avon and Andy Plovnick at Bunker Studios in Brooklyn. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: A new book chronicles the making of the First Folio and uncovers tantalizing new traces of Shakespeare’s handiwork.

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

2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the First Folio—the book that collected nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays in print for the first time. We have the First Folio to thank for preserving plays like The Tempest, Macbeth, As You Like It, and many others that had never been printed up to that point.

That’s all the more remarkable because, at the time, plays were rarely considered worthy of such a lavish publication.

But it turns out that the story behind the First Folio has enough twists to fill out a five-act play. It has its own heroes, villains, and political subtext. And the success of the Folio itself was far from a sure thing.

That story has finally been told in a new book by the scholar Chris Laoutaris. In Shakespeare’s Book, Laoutaris re-examines everything we thought we knew about the publication of the First Folio and uncovers some new information in the archives. Laoutaris’s book drops the reader into a vividly-drawn Jacobean London and gives us fresh portraits of Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues as they take on the task of collecting his life’s work.

Here’s Chris Laoutaris, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Why don’t we start with the basics? Because most people know that the First Folio is the first published collection of some of Shakespeare’s plays, but that’s not all. Why don’t you run down for us exactly what’s between the pages of Shakespeare’s first book?

CHRIS LAOUTARIS: Yeah, the First Folio was in a way an amazing work of conservation. I would say it’s one of the greatest acts of literary conservation in history. It preserved 18 Shakespeare plays that probably would have been consigned to oblivion had it not been for the creators of this remarkable volume.

Plays, for example, like Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Winter’s Tale. These probably would not exist now had it not been for the First Folio. They’ve really done humanity a great service by preserving these works.

The other thing that’s important about the First Folio is that it gathered together the most that had ever been said about Shakespeare up until that point. It contains commemorative verses by a group of Renaissance scholar poets including Ben Johnson, Shakespeare’s fellow playwright and friend, and perhaps also rival. In that sense, it marks the beginning of Shakespeare biography. It’s the first time people have gathered their thoughts together in one collective space to think about who Shakespeare was, what he meant to them, and his output.

BOGAEV: Just rounding out the basics here, what exactly was a folio in Shakespeare’s time? What did it mean and who else got a folio besides Shakespeare?

LAOUTARIS: Yeah, so folios were large format works. The actual construction of a folio depends on taking large sheets and folding them in half. So, you’ve got these huge pages, in effect.

Folios were reserved for grand works. These would be historiographical. Works by learned ministers, monarchs. Works of national importance or religious significance tended to be preserved in folio format.

Plays, at the time, were considered to be actually not elevated works of literature. They didn’t have the prestige they do now.

An example of this is the then keeper of what became the Bodleian Library said he didn’t want to stock commercial plays in the library because he referred to them as “baggage books” which would bring disgrace to the library. So, you know, he didn’t want plays to be anywhere near the Bodleian library.

So having a folio of collected plays that were in the theater, on stage, for paying customers, you know, that was considered quite a daring thing to do at the time.

You can imagine this did actually contribute to the elevation of the craft of playwriting. You know, these plays appearing in 1623 in a grand, luxurious folio format, which was incredibly expensive to produce.

BOGAEV: What does all of this tell you about Shakespeare’s reputation at the time, that his plays got printed in this pretty unusual way with all of this branding?

LAOUTARIS: Yeah, this is the interesting thing. From around 1613, when Shakespeare stops writing solo plays, Shakespeare printing seems to have gone into decline.

You get fewer and fewer printed versions of Shakespeare’s plays. And from 1615 to around the end of 1618, there are no new plays printed after a reissue of Richard II, which comes out in 1615. Then Shakespeare printing stops.

Suddenly in 1619, there’s an attempt to revive Shakespeare’s reputation in print. There’s an attempt to create an early form of selected works of Shakespeare in what we now call the Pavier Quartos.

This is because this was produced by a publisher named Thomas Pavier. He had, as his co-creator of this volume, the Jaggards, William and Isaac Jaggard. Father and son printer publishing team, who actually went on to co-finance and print the First Folio.

They were also involved in this, kind of, early attempt at creating a collected Shakespeare edition. But yeah, Shakespeare before that was… seemed to be in decline before Thomas Pavier and the Jaggards decided to revive his reputation in print.

BOGAEV: But the First Folio, you say, really, it has a lot to do with the death of the great actor Richard Burbage. And in fact, you begin your story with the death of Burbage. Why?

LAOUTARIS: Yeah, that’s a very good question. So, when I wrote this book, I wanted to put everything in chronological sequence. So, I think for the first time, Shakespeare’s Book collates the events surrounding the First Folio from 1619 to 1623 in chronological sequence.

When I did that, it kind of became clear to me that Richard Burbage’s death did have a seismic impact on Shakespeare publishing. It made a dent in the cultural fabric because Richard Burbage was seen as one of the greatest actors of all time.

His death really did—it sparked an unprecedented public mourning, which was said to eclipse the mourning over the death of Queen Anne, who died just a couple of weeks before Burbage.

But what I argue in the book is that there’s a kind of chain of events. I believe it was Burbage’s death that sparked the interest in Shakespeare printing again in 1619, and that it may also have had an emotional impact on Heminges and Condell, who were Shakespeare’s fellow actors in the King’s Men playing company who gathered his works together, gave them to a printing publishing syndicate to create the First Folio.

I think it must have suddenly dawned on Heminges and Condell that there would be a resurgence in popularity of plays by the King’s Men, particularly Shakespeare. Because it was Shakespeare’s words that made Burbage so great in the eyes of the public. He played all the big roles, you know, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear. You know, those huge roles. Richard III. In the public imagination, Shakespeare and Burbage were cemented very closely together.

There’s a wonderful quote by Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, the great Shakespeare biographer, which says something like, “People did not realize that Shakespeare was dead while Burbage lived.”

BOGAEV: Well, in the end, what does this story of intersecting and intertwined lives of all of these people involved in the First Folio tell us about what role Shakespeare himself might have played in this? Or, what hopes he might have had for it?

LAOUTARIS: Yeah, this is the million dollar question. You know, did Shakespeare have a hand in his own book? We can never know for sure.

One intriguing detail is that on his deathbed, pretty much, he revised his will and he left money for mourning rings to three people. These were John Heminges, Henry Condell, and Richard Burbage.

Richard Burbage obviously dies in 1619, so we don’t know, had he lived, whether he would have set his name down beside Heminges and Condell in the First Folio.

If he had, that might have suggested that these mourning rings were maybe some kind of pledge or promise, a bond between these fellow friends and actors for the completion of the First Folio after Shakespeare’s death.

Interestingly, Heminges and Condell imply in the First Folio, that had Shakespeare lived, he would have completed the First Folio himself. They describe this as his right to have, you know, gathered the works himself and completed them. But they say he was unable to do this simply because of his death.

I also argue in the book that it’s possible that the personnel chosen to commemorate him in the First Folio were selected because they were his friends. If so, this might mean that either Heminges, or Condell, or the syndicate, realized what Shakespeare’s wishes would have been. And if that’s the case, then there is a trace of Shakespeare’s own will in his book.

BOGAEV: You mentioned the Folio “syndicate.” Who exactly is in the Folio syndicate?

LAOUTARIS: Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s important to remember that, you know, the First Folio was not just created by Heminges and Condell. They claim a lot of the credit in their… they’ve got two epistles in the First Folio, two letters.

One to the patrons of the First Folio. I’m sure we’ll come to them in a moment, they were the Herbert brothers. And then there’s another epistle to the reader.

In both of these letters, they claim a great deal of credit for gathering Shakespeare’s works together, but it’s important to remember there were many others involved in the creation of the First Folio.

Among these there were four businesses. These were the businesses of William and Isaac Jaggard, who were father-and-son printer-publishing team, whose workshop was in the Barbican in London.

The whole of the First Folio was put together and constructed in their workshop, apart from the iconic title page, which may have been given to Martin Droschout, the printer, and produced elsewhere. Then brought back into the workshop for completion with the folio.

Then there was Edward Blunt, who was another senior publisher who co-financed the operation. He was a very well-respected literary publisher with his finger on the pulse of the latest trends of the time.

Then we have two further, probably lesser partners: William Aspley and John Smethwick. They were also involved in the folio project.

So four businesses in total put up the funding for this project.

BOGAEV: All these different printers and publishers had rights to different plays, right?

LAOUTARIS: Yeah, so… this is the complicated thing about the First Folio. One of the biggest obstacles the team—the syndicate—had in putting the First Folio together was they had to track down the rights holders to up to 22 plays.

During this period, playwrights often did not own their own works. The rights to print those works or the rights to those works outright, in fact, belonged to the playing company. So, the rights to Shakespeare’s works belonged collectively to the King’s Men playing company. Before that, they were known as the Chamberlain’s Men.

Over the years, particularly during the first half of Shakespeare’s career, the rights to those works were released. They were sold on to publishers who published those works, hoping to make a profit.

So, before the First Folio could be printed. They had to track down the rights holders to up to 22 plays, which is a huge task.

Now, the syndicate, between them, owned the rights to eight plays, but that still left a large number of plays that had to be tracked down and negotiated with up to eight different publisher-stationers.

That was one of the biggest obstacles they had in front of them before even getting to print it.

BOGAEV: No wonder this whole thing took two years to get published.

LAOTARIS: Oh yeah.

BOGAEV: There are a number of noblemen who were involved in this project too. One of them is Sir William Herbert, Lord of Pembroke, who you mentioned. Who is he and how does he figure into this whole story?

LAOUTARIS: Yeah, so William Herbert was a very important figure to the King’s Men. He was the Lord Chamberlain, an elevated post in the king’s royal household.

He was in charge of overseeing royal entertainments, so he was a kind of bridge between the monarch and the King’s Men. And over the years, the Lord Chamberlain was very supportive of the King’s Men.

For example, in 1619 he asked the Stationer’s Company, which was the body responsible for overseeing the publishing industry at the time, to issue an edict forbidding the publication of any works attached to the King’s Men’s repertory.

Now, this would have been very useful for the King’s Men. What it meant was that they had some control over the publishing landscape of works attached to the repertory, and that would have included Shakespeare.

My instinct, when putting everything together in chronological sequences is, it’s possible that this edict was prompted by Burbage’s death. And, that is, it’s this edict forbidding publication which then prompted Pavier and the Jaggards to actually stop printing the Pavier quartos and reveal themselves to the King’s Men.

Because the condition of the edict was that anyone who wanted to publish any plays attached to the King’s men had to present themselves to senior members of the King’s Men—which would have meant Heminges and Condell—and get their permission, basically, to print those plays.

I think there’s probably some kind of connection, given that the Jaggards worked on this Pavier quarto collection, but also became the printer-financiers of the First Folio, too.

BOGAEV: Okay, let’s talk about these guys, the Jaggards and Pavier. I’ve got to say, all of these characters sound like such scoundrels in publishing. It’s so interesting. What mischief did these two get up to? And how have they gotten such a bad rap?

LAOUTARIS: Yeah, so Thomas Pavier, along with the Jaggards, William and Isaac, have been getting quite a bit of bad press over the decades because they were involved in this Pavier quarto project and it was discovered that these plays had false imprints, that they were quite misleading. Although they were all printed in the Jaggars workshop—the very same workshop, in fact, in which they printed the First Folio—they contained false dates, some of these, designed to mislead, to make it look as if these additions were earlier works that had just been remaindered in bookshops.

So, there appears to be a great deal of skullduggery and subterfuge involved in the creation of these Pavier quartos. And that’s led to the Jaggards in particular getting quite a bad rap over the years.

What I argue in the book is that it’s possible that there was some kind of deal struck between the Jaggards and the First Folio syndicate; That when they discovered that this Pavier quarto collection was about to be released, they struck a deal, which basically meant that if the Jaggards and Thomas Pavier were willing to make it look like these were simply older remaindered plays and therefore not competition for the First Folio, then the Jaggards could be brought into the project and maybe benefit, you know, profit from two collected works of Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Okay. Well, following that chronological sequence, we finally arrived at the printing of this First Folio. You give us this wonderful day in the life of Tudor England at this point, inside a print shop. Maybe just to preface what we’re going to talk about next, tell us about the sights and the sounds and even the smells of Jaggard’s business.

LAOUTARIS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. You would have walked into one of these print shops at the time, and the first thing I think that would have struck you would have been the din. Just the noise of the thousands of pieces of lead type arranged into Shakespeare’s words and lines by compositors.

Compositors were the press workers responsible for selecting every single individual piece of type, placing them in what was known as a composing stick. Then layering those into what were known as forms, which were put into frames so that you could get a printed page of Shakespeare text.

This was an incredibly arduous and difficult task.

BOGAEV: This is like a clickety clack sound, right?

LAOUTARIS: Yeah, it must have been. Yeah, you’d have heard that clacking sound of all these thousands of pieces of type being kind of placed into these frames. You would have heard, like, the smack of ink balls placed over this type to coat them in an even layer of ink.

These ink balls were normally made of, kind of, leather, which was stuffed. And then you dip them in ink. And an inker would then, you know, slap them over these print ready forms and frames. That would have made a, kind of, a loud slapping noise.

Then there was the creaking of the printing presses. You know, with large levers being kind of winched into position so that you could get these printed pages out.

BOGAEV: I just love this chapter because you talk about how the compositors changed Shakespeare’s text for different, just very practical reasons of their craft. For instance, when they ran out of space.

LAOUTARIS: Yeah. This is the amazing thing. You know, we read Shakespeare’s words and we don’t realize that there were so many hands involved that could have changed those words.

So yeah, compositors would have… you know, if they ran out of space in any given page, done things to change the text. They might have changed the, you know, verse into prose to squash it into the text. They might have removed stage directions, or even changed some of the lines, or cut things, or squashed them in.

BOGAEV: Wow. What did it cost to publish this First Folio in the end?

LAOUTARIS: Well, one estimate for the cost of producing the First Folio is roughly six shillings and eight pence per volume, which is a very high unit cost. It’s estimated there was a print run of roughly 750. That would have meant a total outlay of 250 [pounds]. Which is roughly, in British pound sterling, £33,000 today, which is a colossal sum.

If we put that into perspective with a laborer, like say an artisan, who was maybe a goldsmith or a shoemaker, in a good paying profession, would earn something like four or five pounds.

So, you know, 250 pounds was a colossal sum. It’s very expensive.

BOGAEV: Wow. Okay, so it’s finally done and it’s in the bookstores, these 750 copies. Apparently when people went to buy it, they could choose a custom binding.

LAOUTARIS: Yeah. Books tended to be sold unbound. A First Folio would cost roughly 15 shillings without the binding, which was again a huge amount of money at the time, probably roughly 120 pounds sterling today.

But, you could pay extra to have it bound. To get that extra binding, you would pay between one and five shillings extra. So, you could pay up to 20 shillings for a copy of the First Folio.

This was a lot of money at the time. To get the full book with a lovely binding, yeah, it was a pricey endeavor indeed.

BOGAEV: Well, how did it sell?

LAOUTARIS: It’s difficult to tell, really. Some bibliographers think it didn’t sell particularly well and probably cost the syndicate money.

Others think actually it did sell quite well because it wasn’t that long before there was a second edition. The second edition was in 1632. So, you know, we might argue that it was reasonably successful for them to have gone into a second edition and felt that was a worthwhile thing to do.

BOGAEV: How many people are buying it outside of London? You write that it was at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

LAOUTARIS: So, they advertised the book at the Frankfurt Book Fair as, you know, booksellers do today, hoping to catch the eyes of passersby and drum up publicity for the book. Then it does begin to spread across the globe.

There’s a folio that may have ended up in Padua at the hands of, you know, Phoenician traders or ambassadors who were consuls to Venice from England. So, it may have ended up in Padua in the 1640s. Thereafter it sort of begins its spread across the globe.

BOGAEV: How many survive? How many are there out there in the world right now that we know of?

LAOUTARIS: There are roughly 235 First Folios that have survived, and they’re spread all over the world. There are very many in the Folger Shakespeare Library, as you know. It’s the largest collection of First Folios on the planet.

What’s important about this Folger collection is that it was the basis for the incredibly painstaking work by a bibliographer named Charlton Hinman, who traced thousands upon thousands of pieces of type used to create the First Folio.

In doing so he managed to work out how the First Folio was put together in what order and who the compositors were who created it. You know, how many there were and what their individual spelling preferences and quirks were.

He did this because he was a cryptographer during the Second World War. He created an incredible machine, we now call the Hinman Collator, which he used to scrutinize the individual scratches and marks on every piece of type, which were as unique as a fingerprint.

BOGAEV: Well, it’s just remarkable to be in the presence of a First Folio. And so many of us have seen it through glass or plexiglass, I guess. But to experience the book itself and touch is just… you feel like you’re reaching right through history. What is your most intimate experience of the First Folio?

LAOUTARIS: One of my first experiences—or certainly I think for me the most intimate experience—was the Padua First Folio, which incidentally is the only First Folio in a European city in which a Shakespeare play is set, which I think is really interesting.

I was allowed privileged access to this at the university in Padua. And basically [was] just left with the First Folio and allowed to, you know, leaf through it. It was an incredible experience. What’s particularly interesting, I tried to get a sense of the feel of the paper. Because at the time, paper wouldn’t have felt the same as it does to us. There was a smoother, what we call a “felt” side to paper, and then a rougher side.

What I love about the First Folio is, those who put it together wanted to create the best possible impression, so the title pages of most of the plays are actually printed on the smoother felt side. So those coming to the First Folio would have felt the kind of luxuriousness of the paper beneath their fingers on the title pages. I thought that was a nice detail.

BOGAEV: Wow, you really take us there too, in the book in such a visceral and sensory way.

But to go from luxury to kind of a darker shadow that hovers over the collection, you could argue that the First Folio tracks the path of colonization too, as it’s spread across the world.

LAOUTARIS: Yeah, it does. Yeah. I mean, I think it’s really important when we approach the First Folio, we often approach with reverence. This is true.

But, I think we must also approach it with a sense of an awareness of its complex history. This is a book that in some of its, you know, earliest years, when it was making its way across the world, that traveled with avid colonizers.

You know, one of these was Sir George Grey. He was very energetic as a colonizer. He was involved in colonizing Australia, New Zealand, and Cape Town, in South Africa. He helped to set up two libraries, one in New Zealand and one in South Africa. He placed a First Folio in each.

This is one of the instances in which an apparent act of philanthropy insidiously disguises kind of darker aims. Because he was absolutely intent—and we have his writings on this—on almost, in a sense, obliterating local cultures and replacing them with what he saw as the pinnacle of culture, which was British culture.

In that sense, the First Folio for him was a kind of talisman of imperial culture which he hoped to impose on these people. He uses words in his writing like, you know, he describes people as being “savages” in those nations, or as “barbarous.”

His idea is that the First Folio is a kind of emblem of the almost obliteration of those cultures and replacing them with everybody speaking in English. Everybody having some knowledge of Shakespeare.

So, there are some kind of darker ends here. You know, other First Folios traveled with people who were involved in the colonization of India, for instance. This is a book we need to approach with the awareness that it does have this kind of darker history.

BOGAEV: Well, Chris, the book is full of revelations and so are you. It is so great to talk with you.

LAOUTARIS: Thank you. Thank you so much.


WITMORE: That was Chris Laoutaris, talking to Barbara Bogaev. Shakespeare’s Book: The Story Behind the First Folio and the Making of Shakespeare is out now from Pegasus Books.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library—which holds the world’s largest collection of First Folios, over a third of all surviving copies. Our building in Washington, DC, has been under renovation for the past three years. but we’re getting ready to open our doors to the public again later this year. In our new exhibition spaces, all 82 copies of the Folger’s First Folios will be on display, together, for the first time. Come visit us on Capitol Hill on Friday, November 17, 2023, for the grand re-opening. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

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 Melvin Rickarby in Stratford and Andy Plovnick at Bunker Studios in Brooklyn. 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.

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