Skip to main content
Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

How Shakespeare's First Folio Became a Star

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 56 

Today, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works, printed in 1623, can sell for millions of dollars. But the First Folio wasn’t always valued so highly. In this podcast episode, two experts in the First Folio and the book trade, Adam Hooks and Daniel De Simone, chart the rise of the First Folio—how and when this book became a cultural icon with such a dizzying price tag.

Adam Hooks is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Iowa and author of Selling Shakespeare: Biography, Bibliography, and the Book Trade. Daniel De Simone is the Eric Weinmann Librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library. They were interviewed by Neva Grant.    

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published September 6, 2016. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “A Volume Of Enticing Lines” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had technical help from Jim Davies, Chief Engineer at Iowa Public Radio in Iowa City and the News Operations Staff at NPR in Washington, DC.

Previous: Elizabethan Medicine | Next: Anecdotal Shakespeare


MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

This podcast is called “A Volume of Enticing Lines.” As we’re recording this, 18 First Folios from the Folger collection are traveling around the country to libraries and museums in all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. Crowds have been beyond expectation at every stop, as people wait in line to see the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s plays.

The enthusiasm level hasn’t always been like this. The First Folio is 393 years old, and, for a long time, it took its place alongside the other books on readers’ shelves and held no particular fascination. But, as you’ll hear, a time came when all that changed, and the book’s reputation and its value climbed to unimaginable heights.

In this podcast, we try to explain when and why this happened and how Shakespeare’s First Folio became a star. We brought in two people with eminent qualifications for the job. University of Iowa English Professor Adam Hooks is the author of Selling Shakespeare: Biography, Bibliography, and the Book Trade. Dan De Simone is the Eric Weinmann Librarian here at the Folger. Before his career in library work, Dan operated his own New York based bookselling business for 22 years. Dan and Adam are interviewed by Neva Grant.

NEVA GRANT: So, Dan, over the course of 12 months the Folger Library is putting on tour several copies of the First Folio. It’s actually touring all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, included in that, and, as I understand, so far on the tour it’s been selling out. It’s been a total superstar. I mean that, in some cases, the tickets are all taken. You can’t even get in to see the First Folio.

DANIEL DE SIMONE: I was speaking to a friend of mine today who just came back from Detroit. She said that the numbers of people that came in in Detroit were three times that of what is a normal visitation to the part of the art museum that the book was in. In Seattle, for instance, they sold out the number of tickets before the book even arrived there. We had anticipated that this was going to stimulate a great deal of interest across the country, but we’re beginning to realize that we made a really good decision. As difficult as it is to control this kind of operation, going to 50 states, we’re really happy that we did it, and now that we’re into this process a couple months, we know how to do it really well.

GRANT: Are you surprised by the reaction?

DE SIMONE: No, I’m not surprised, because when we had the application process, the responses… We had about 150 responses for 50 slots, basically 50 slots, and one of the requirements was the programming. What type of programming are you going to have around the book, in addition to whether it’s going to be secure, and who the management was at the host sites.

We really focused on the type of programming that was taking place, and once we started reading these applications, we realized that community after community, institution after institution, was really serious about doing a bang-up job and that they saw this as an opportunity to bring in a new audience. Just like we saw it as an opportunity for a new audience, they saw that as well. So we’re not surprised—but we are, because it’s now in motion. We’re thrilled by it, to be honest with you.

GRANT: I’m sure. Well, let’s remind people what this new audience is actually seeing when they come in to see a First Folio. What is so special about it?

DE SIMONE: Well, the First Folio was printed in 1623 and it’s the collected plays of William Shakespeare. It was put together by a couple of guys that were in his troupe, and they worked with a publisher and a printer. They put this collection of 36 plays together, printed it in a folio format, which was a very large format. It’s a format that, I guess, if you remember what a Life magazine looks like, it’s sort of over-sized by today’s standards. And it was usually used for theological books, or treatises, or law. This was the first time it was really used for collected plays. And so that’s what distinguishes it in English language publishing, certainly.

GRANT: Right, but you know it’s funny, because it’s still just a book. And yet it draws such a very excited audience.

DE SIMONE: Yeah, the book is… It’s an amazing phenomenon, I think. I’m familiar with, for many years I’ve been handling old books, and there’s a thrill that comes still, in my career, when I’m handling really important books. There’s something that’s transmitted through the object, not only about the content and the importance as a historical object, but the physical object itself. And so, with the First Folio, you have this transmission that’s taking place, I think, and people want to see it. I ask myself the same questions. It’s not a Bible, for instance, you know? It’s not a manual of how to make it rich, quick. It’s a group of plays, and so, what is it about the plays, which is so universally important to us as human beings?

GRANT: Adam, I hope that over the course of this conversation we can sort of trace back to the origins of the First Folio and try to figure out where along the journey the First Folio sort of, first, kind of fell into a bit of a slumber, where people forgot about it, I guess, for a little while, except for a few scholars and editors and so forth, and then suddenly it awakened a real passion and interest in people. So, let’s talk, Adam, if we can, about what happened with William Shakespeare initially? Didn’t the author himself have to go through a renaissance of sorts in the years after his death? He fell out of favor, I guess, or people weren’t as interested, and then, suddenly, they were again. What happened?

ADAM HOOKS: Well, the First Folio itself, compiled by John Heminge and Henry Condell… They really conceived of the book as an act of commemorization. The preliminaries characterized the book as both the literary corpus, but also, in a way, a representative of the literal corpus of Shakespeare as his remains, collecting together the plays that constituted his theatrical career in one book. It’s not that Shakespeare ever fell out of favor, at least in the seven years between his death and the publication of the First Folio. It’s in part his preexisting popularity that even led anyone to believe that this would be a feasible venture in the first place.

Now obviously, post-1623 until the Restoration, Shakespeare was an important, but not always the most fashionable or popular playwright. Part of his popularity after the theaters reopened, after the English Civil War and the Restoration, is that the plays were performed in adapted versions, because he seemed old-fashioned. You could still access the texts of his works, but when you went to the theater, for the most part, you were seeing adapted versions of the plays that had been updated to suit contemporary tastes.

GRANT: So what did it take then for the First Folio to get the recognition that it ultimately deserved?

HOOKS: That is a much longer story. In the 17th century, the Folios, what we now know as the four distinct Folio editions, were not exactly interchangeable, but there was no sense that chronological priority was intrinsically valuable. In fact, the Third Folio added seven plays that had never been published in a Folio collection before.

GRANT: And all of which weren’t even Shakespeare’s plays, right?

HOOKS: Exactly, but they had been attributed to him in print already, so there was some justification for that. So what you see is that there was no real use value for a First Folio. You wanted to use whatever the most recent and most accessible Folio edition would be.

GRANT: Which explains why the Second, the Third, and the Fourth Folios came along, correct?

HOOKS: Exactly. The Second Folio, published in 1632, would seem to show that the first edition was popular enough that they sold out the inventory, thought that people want to buy this book. The Third Folio comes along and adds those extra plays, the Fourth Folio as well. So it was important to have a Folio edition. It was certainly not important to have a First Folio edition.

GRANT: And, Adam, I think it’s an interesting indication of how the First Folio was not quite appreciated in its time. There is apparently a fairly well known story about how Oxford’s Bodleian Library basically gave a First Folio away when it was able to get its hands on a later edition.

HOOKS: Exactly. So it’s well known that the Bodleian Library in Oxford acquired a copy of the First Folio soon after it was published. This seems to have been part of an arrangement with the Stationers’ Company in London that they would acquire a kind of deposit copy for books that they felt were desirable. It was in the library by 1624, bound in an Oxford binding. It was listed in their catalog in 1635.

The next catalog, however, from the 1670s does not list the First Folio. It only lists the Third Folio, from 1664, and so what seems to have happened is that when they acquired the Third Folio in 1664, this was the same year in which they undertook a campaign to make more space. And so they deaccessioned some of their duplicate copies. We don’t know that that’s exactly what happened, but it seems a good explanation that they sold off some of their books to a local Oxford bookseller. That particular copy was then acquired by the Turbutt family early in the 18th century, and it stayed in that family until 1905.

GRANT: Did the Bodleian Library ever get it back?

HOOKS: They did get it back. In 1905, the young son of the current owner of the First Folio brought it into the library to get it assessed for some restoration work on the binding, which was very worn. There were clear marks on the binding where the chain that had once held it in the Bodleian Library had been ripped off, at a certain point. And the librarian that he brought it to was named Falconer Madan, and he almost immediately recognized that this was the copy that used to be housed in the Bodleian Library. So the Bodleian undertook a fundraising campaign to keep this book in England, and they eventually did raise enough money, although it was a precarious venture to do so. So you can see whatever the reason was that the book left Oxford in the first place, it was deemed to be not essential or not valuable. Whereas, when they regained the copy, it was thought to be the most valuable copy.

GRANT: Okay, so you have to tell us. What happened between those two time periods?

HOOKS: Throughout the 18th century, the string of multivolume editions of Shakespeare that were produced, and there were many of them… At first, they simply relied on whatever texts were most available. Nicholas Rowe, who is the first editor of an 18th-century edition in 1709, was a playwright, and part of his purpose was to modernize Shakespeare. He relied on a Fourth Folio. He seems to have owned a Second Folio himself, but there’s no evidence that he ever looked at a First Folio. Most of the major 18th-century editors do have some association with a First Folio. Sometimes they even successively owned the same copy of the First Folio, probably a result of the Tonson publishing house, which held the copyright to Shakespeare’s plays, but there’s very little evidence that they really interacted with or engaged with the First Folio text.

The first person to state the textual primacy of the First Folio was a man named George Steevens. In 1765, he was a scholar and became an editor of Shakespeare. He assisted Samuel Johnson in his famous edition of Shakespeare in 1765, and, in fact, in what is the very last line in the entire multivolume edition, Steevens makes a statement that, of course, the First Folio is the authentic text, particularly for plays that never had appeared in quarto.

GRANT: How did they come to that conclusion?

HOOKS: Steevens was one of the first people to try to figure out how many Shakespearean quartos were available.

GRANT: Quartos, of course, were the individual plays, not assembled in one volume, but sort of folded into a much smaller and less expensive volume.

HOOKS: Exactly, and those were owned by private collectors. They were very difficult to come by. You see 18th-century editors pleading in advertisements that if you have any old editions of Shakespeare plays, please make them available, because it was clear that there were different texts of some of Shakespeare’s plays, and so to edit it properly you needed to have access to as much evidence as possible.

GRANT: Sure. But you’ve just described Steevens and Johnson, who in their volume, they’re saying that the text that they feel most comfortable referring to is the First Folio. Why is that? Why did they arrive at that idea?

HOOKS: Johnson had the idea… Well, first of all, I will just interject this, is that Johnson didn’t like large folio books. He said that no person could ever read for very long with a large folio book lying on a table. What you needed was a handheld version you could take with you, and sit in front of the fire and read it. He realized that the differences among the subsequent Folios were most likely errors or corruptions in the text, and that the First Folio therefore should be the most authoritative. Steevens, in fact, called the Third and Fourth Folios basically good only for waste paper, because they deviated from the first edition of the Folio.

In the 19th century…  So the editorial tradition somewhat alters in the 19th century. By the middle of that century, you do see editors and publishers of collected editions of Shakespeare’s works placing emphasis on the First Folio. In a sense, they wanted the weight of editorial commentary, and most of the editions, starting in the 18th century, reprinted previous notes from previous editors because it’s easier to argue with editors if you cite what they’ve said about it. So there was this amazing weight of commentary, and people wanted to access Shakespeare’s texts without the mediation of editors. In the 18th century, no one called the First Folio, the First Folio. The term First Folio did not stabilize until sometime in the 19th century.

So it really was the 19th century that seems to have solidified the Shakespeare First Folio as an object, not only of scholarly desire, but as an object to buy and to collect, as well, as one of the real touchstones of English literature. So what I would say is that the scholarly consideration of the First Folio’s text and the value that they placed on the text, starting in the late 18th century and into the 19th century, that scholarly evaluation tracks very well with the growing trade in First Folios. So you really see the market, the price, of First Folios start to rise steeply in the 1780s and 1790s, with a very steep rise over the course of the 19th century.

So what you have is a culturally, and a scholarly, and a commercially valuable object. This one particular book rated as the most valuable from all of these different perspectives, and once it had achieved that status, of course, it became almost inaccessible.

There’s a quote from the late 18th century arguing that we should produce facsimiles of the First Folio, because only princes and merchant princes can afford to buy the book. You could not access it, because it was increasingly expensive, so that by the turn of the 20th century, because of all sorts of different factors, it has become useful only as a commodity, only as something to be exchanged and owned and cherished. The book had become an object, rather than a book.

GRANT: So, Dan, let me bring you back into the conversation. At what point did the First Folio actually become inaccessible to all but the very wealthiest buyers?

DE SIMONE: Well, I think, in the 19th century, you began to see the rise in the value of the book. For instance, there was a collector by the name of George Daniel. He was a playwright and he also was very much involved in theater in London in the 1840s and 1850s, and he build a significant collection of important books, and a very strong collection of Shakespeare and Shakespeareana. He had purchased, in the 1840s, a copy, a beautiful copy of the First Folio, and he paid about 115 pounds for it. At a sale in 1864, it went for 700 pounds—719 pounds, I think, to be exact. And that copy was then sold to Folger in the early part of the 20th century for 8,000 pounds—and that’s about 50,000 dollars at the exchange rate.

So you can see that, during the middle of the 19th century, there were some copies available, but by the time it gets into the 20th century, the book’s becoming extremely, extremely valuable. In addition to Mr. Folger, who was buying books, important books of this nature, you also had… J.P. Morgan was in the market, Henry Huntington was in the market, and from Providence, Rhode Island, Marsden Perry was also a big collector of Shakespeare. So they were buying at the same time that Mr. Folger was buying, and, by that time, the book was becoming an icon, and very, very difficult to bring on to the market, and then to be able to afford.

GRANT: Right, and what was causing it to go up so steeply in price?

DE SIMONE: Well, I think, part of it was the competition of these collectors, especially American collectors, who were really interested in building collections and actually making private libraries, and then they become public, in a sense. Although our library is a private library, it’s really for the public good. So I think this was a very important aspect of it, but in addition, especially coming in after the First World War, when books were moving from Great Britain and from Europe, actually, to the United States, university libraries were also becoming very interested.

One of the things about the university system is that you have certain areas of specialty, and English literature was the most important area of specialization for graduate students and the development of the university departments. And as a result, over time, the universities wanted copies of these books as well, because they were so important to their scholars. And so, all over the country, you had the development of these very strong English departments that were building collections. So that became another competitive part of buying English books, but in many, many subjects. But, you know, since we’re talking about early modern England, this is something that’s happened not only in the East Coast, and then in the center of the country, and then on the West Coast—this institutional library system, based in universities, was really growing like crazy.

GRANT: Remind us, please, how many copies of the First Folio does the Folger own?

DE SIMONE: The Folger owns 82 copies.

GRANT: Which is more than any other institution in the world.

DE SIMONE: Yeah, by far. What Folger was doing… and the rationale for Folger, and this was early on in his collecting career, when he was working with his wife, he and his wife really built the collection together.

GRANT: Emily Folger.

DE SIMONE: Emily Folger, and he couldn’t have done it without her, the way he did. But he knew, from an early period, that he wanted to build a research library, and he understood that when he was buying books, that if he bought multiple copies of an edition, they’d all be different in some way. There’d be a different binding, or maybe they were annotated in such a way that would provide future scholars information about how language was understood at a given time, or what was important to a reader in the 18th century or in the 19th century. So he realized early on that he was building a research library.

So for him to buy all of these 82 copies, it wasn’t just “Foliomania” on his part. What it was, was he was trying to fulfill his mission. And he did that with the poems. He did it with editions of other writers, who were writing around the same time as Shakespeare was writing, buying multiple editions of their works to see how it changed over time, with the idea that in the future, scholars would be able to use this collection. And as a result, he didn’t only build a “high spot collection,” what we would call a “high spot collection” with all the Folios and so forth, he built a research library. And then after his death in 1930, and the establishment of the library in 1932, the board of governors of that library continued to build on it, following his mission.

GRANT: You say it wasn’t Foliomania, but you also know, as someone who used to deal in rare books, that for many collectors there’s sort of a bit of gamesmanship to all of this, and there’s real, open competition to get your hands on a valuable book. What did Henry and his wife Emily do, from a strategic point of view, that was different than other collectors? How were they able to amass so many books? Was it just sheer, you know, they just had more money than anyone at that time?

DE SIMONE: Well, yes, they had a lot of money. They didn’t have children. They dedicated themselves to building the library, but they were very systematic in how they went about purchasing the books. So they had very strong relationships with the important members of the American book trade, but also they had really strong connections with the auction houses in London and with the book trade. He was also audacious, in a sense, in the way he went after the books. If he found out that there was a book that he wanted, it was on the market, he would really work hard to get it. There are stories about his attempts to woo English nobility to buy important books from their collections.

There was a scholar, an English scholar, by the name of Sidney Lee, who did a census of the known copies of the First Folio and where they were. Well, in the Folger Shakespeare Library, we have Folger’s copy of that census, with all his notes about where these books were, whether he had tried to purchase them, which ones he thought he could purchase, which ones he knew were in institutional libraries and would never come out. So he used the census, as a businessman would use it, in order to try and continue to purchase copies of the Folio, and it was, in a sense, a road map for him, and that’s a beautiful example. When I came across this document, I just was thrilled by it, because it really showed the enthusiasm. In one place, you could see how this collector operated.


GRANT: Adam, did you have something you wanted to add?

HOOKS: Yes, the Sidney Lee census from 1902… I think Dan’s story about his particular copy of the census as a kind of shopping list for Mr. Folger is really extraordinary. And I’ll just add one other thing about Henry Folger, in the sense that, as Dan said, his goal was really philanthropic and scholarly. Scholars in his own time complained about Folger, because the books that he bought were not accessible until the library opened, but what he really seems to have accomplished is that he thought that the First Folio had a use value. He thought that you could collate the texts for scholarly purposes, as opposed to simply acquiring it as a kind of fetish object.

GRANT: What would have been the motivation of a collector who could only get his or her hands on one copy of the First Folio? I mean, was it just, again, just a kind of jewel in the crown of their own personal book collection?

DE SIMONE: I think that’s partially true, but, you know, this book, and many books, have a magnetism to them, and it’s more than simply ownership—that I’ve got this really great thing. I think books speak to people’s lives, and sometimes, if you have the wherewithal, you want to be able to have a certain type of relationship with an important idea, or an important author, or an important experience, and the book, for many people, offers that. And so you’re willing to build and spend your hard-earned money on building a collection and have a personal relationship with the object.

GRANT: So give us an idea of what some of the other books might be that would be flanking the First Folio on a collector’s shelf. Say you only have one First Folio. What would be next to it? What would be underneath it?

DE SIMONE: Well, I think in today’s market and environment, because science is so important, there’s a really great demand for scientific texts, important scientific texts, so Copernicus is an important author that you may… Galileo, of course, was a very, very important author that you would want from that period of the development of the scientific revolution, and I think for science people, these are the types of books that speak to them.

I was in Spain last year, and I went to visit a private collector outside of Toledo, and he had an incredible collection of Cervantes. The first edition of Cervantes is a legendary rarity, and so having two authentic firsts is really hard to achieve, but in addition to that, he had all of the editions of Cervantes’s works. He had all the illustrated books. He had rugs that were made in the design of characters from Cervantes’s plays, so it’s almost a universal subject area. It depends on what the interest would be.

So there’s a private collector who has amassed an incredible, important collection of 19th-century French literature in original wrappers, and this is really important… it’ll go to an institution, I’m sure, someday, but it’s a very important fact that he was able to put this together.

Americana is a big wide open collection. Map collecting is very, very important to many, many people, and so there’s a drive to collect, you know, maps of the Midwest printed before 1875, or, you know, the “California as an island” that were printed, you know, in the 16th century. So there’s many, many subject areas.

GRANT: I’m wondering if I could get both of you, Adam and Dan, to speak to the idea that this, of course… If you’re in Britain and you’re a British collector, the First Folio is, of course, a symbol of national pride, but, Dan, I think you alluded to the fact that it’s also a symbol of literary pride for anyone who speaks English, or really, for that matter, anyone who appreciates theater or literature. It’s beyond England, isn’t it? It’s beyond Great Britain. Adam, maybe you can speak to that idea.

HOOKS: The First Folio is a symbol for the global Shakespeare industry, which at this point is a business that’s “too big to fail’ in a lot of different ways, but there are copies of the First Folio all around the world. It’s good to point out that the second largest collection of Folios is in a university library in Meisei [University], Japan.

For people who want to acquire a book, or for anyone that’s visiting any of the 50 locations where the Folio will be displayed, what they’re seeing is not a book to be read. It’s a kind of sacred relic, to a certain degree. It’s one that’s immensely financially valuable, but it also stands for the cultural importance that we place on Shakespeare. The First Folio now represents a collection of very different kinds of value that various cultures in societies around the world appreciate to varying degrees.


DE SIMONE: Well, I think it’s the storytelling. Shakespeare had an influence in so many aspects of our lives, and it’s used not only as a literary tool to tell the story, but it’s used by our society as a whole. And it has been in the 19th century and into the 20th century, as Americans adopted Shakespeare and his works. We could see it in advertising, because if they used Shakespeare as an advertising tool, they would gain, at least, visibility and people would be paying attention to them. Shakespeare wasn’t American, but Americans adopted him in a very important way. So I see it as the storytelling, which then became a part of our cultural experience.

GRANT: Dan and Adam, thanks for a fascinating conversation.

DE SIMONE: Thank you.

HOOKS: Thank you.

WITMORE: Adam Hooks is an assistant professor in the department of English at the University of Iowa and author of Selling Shakespeare: Biography, Bibliography, and the Book Trade. Dan De Simone is the Eric Weinmann Librarian here at the Folger Shakespeare Library. They were interviewed by Neva Grant.

“A Volume of Enticing Lines” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had technical help from Jim Davies, chief engineer at Iowa Public Radio in Iowa City, and the news operations staff at NPR in Washington, DC.

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. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.