What Is a First Folio?

First Folio FAQ

The First Folio, printed in 1623, 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.

The following are frequently asked questions and answers about this iconic volume.

Why is the First Folio important?

Out of the 36 plays included in the First Folio, 18 had never been published before. Without the First Folio, these plays might have been lost forever.

The 18 plays that appear for the first time in the First Folio are All’s Well That Ends WellAntony and CleopatraAs You Like ItThe Comedy of ErrorsCoriolanusCymbelineHenry VI, Part 1Henry VIIIJulius CaesarKing JohnMacbethMeasure for MeasureThe Taming of the ShrewThe TempestTimon of AthensTwelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Winter’s Tale.

Shakespeare's original manuscript copies of the plays have been gone for centuries, so the early printed editions, including the First Folio, are the closest thing we have to the plays as he wrote them.

Why is the First Folio's portrait of Shakespeare so significant?

The title page of the First Folio includes an original portrait of Shakespeare, engraved by the artist Martin Droeshout. The Droeshout engraving is one of very few portraits of Shakespeare that are considered authentic; it was approved by those who worked on the First Folio and had known Shakespeare.

>> Watch | The First Folio's Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare | How the Droeshout engraving changed over time

What is a folio—and why does that format matter?

A folio is a large book made by folding printed sheets of paper in half, with each sheet forming four pages. This format was usually reserved for history, religion, and other weighty subjects. The First Folio was the first folio ever published in England devoted exclusively to plays.

Before 1623, about half of Shakespeare's plays were published in quartos—small, one-play books made by folding sheets of paper twice, to create eight pages per sheet. Quartos were like the easily disposable paperbacks of today, and relatively few of them survive. A folio was more expensive and sturdier, so it was more likely to last.

>> Watch  |  Printing the First Folio.

How many First Folios were printed and how many survive today?

We don't know for sure how many First Folios were printed. Researchers think that there were probably about 750 copies, which was a typical print run at the time. A total of 235 First Folios are currently known to survive, including two that were discovered in 2016.

>> Listen  |  The discovery and identification of First Folios

How much did a First Folio cost?

The scholar Peter Blayney suggests that an unbound copy of the First Folio cost 15 shillings and a copy with a plain calf binding cost a pound (20 shillings), about $200 today.

Who produced the First Folio?

The First Folio was created in the years after Shakespeare's death in 1616. His friends and former colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell, who were also partners in the King's Men acting company, brought together his plays.

The book was published by a London syndicate headed by Edward Blount and Isaac Jaggard. Isaac's father William Jaggard printed it at his London printing shop, but he died before the book was completed. Isaac Jaggard took over the shop after his father's death.

>> Listen  |  Creating Shakespeare's First Folio

How is each First Folio unique?

The First Folio was proofread as it was printed, creating small variations which turn up in some copies but not others. Over time, some copies acquired notes and drawings. Copies were damaged; many have missing pages. Page edges were also trimmed for rebinding, so the page sizes now vary.

>> Learn more about the History of the First Folio  |  Folger First Folio collection  |  Individual Folger First Folios

Why does the First Folio matter to Shakespeare editors?

The fact that the First Folio preserved 18 of Shakespeare's plays is essential, of course. But in addition, some of the other 18 plays in the First Folio are quite different from previous editions. The First Folio includes lines and passages in those plays that might also have been lost without it.

Sometimes people disagree as to which version of a line or scene is more accurate. To this day, editors examine passages from the earlier quarto editions and the First Folio as they produce modern Shakespeare editions.

>> Listen  |  Editing Shakespeare

Did Shakespeare write other plays?

Yes, but not many. Besides the 36 plays in the First Folio, Shakespeare wrote Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen (with John Fletcher). A 39th play, Cardenio, has been lost.

In addition, playwrights in Shakespeare's day often collaborated. Some scholars have made the case that Shakespeare worked on certain other plays as well.