History of the First Folio

When the First Folio was printed in 1623, Shakespeare had been dead for seven years; new plays and performers were taking the stage. It was not until 1632 that a second edition, now called the Second Folio, was published. Yet over time, tied to the enduring and expanding fame of Shakespeare, the First Folio has become a famous and much-loved treasure.

>> Listen  |   How the First Folio became a star
Shakespeare Unlimited podcast interview with Daniel De Simone and Adam Hooks

Owners of the First Folio

Its owners for the past four centuries have included, among others, individuals and families (some for many generations), Shakespeare editors, and collectors, with purchases of First Folios sometimes making headlines. Theatrical impresarios, actors, and acting companies have also owned First Folios, seeing the First Folio both as a guide to Shakespeare's intent and an iconic relic. Collectors or their families often gave their First Folios to libraries.  (In the case of Henry and Emily Folger, of course, they built their own library in which to house the First Folios they had collected.) As a result, the book's owners today are often universities and libraries, meaning that First Folios are rarely sold.

>> Watch  |  Why the First Folio is so important
A Folger video with Anthony James West, co-curator of the exhibition
Fame, Fortune, & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio

First Folio censuses

In 1902, Sir Sidney Lee completed a monumental "census" of all the known First Folios in the world, which came to 158 copies. Yet other, previously unrecorded First Folios continued to be located. In 2003, Anthony James West's census included 228. Some of the recorded copies in these censuses cannot be found, as they have been lost or stolen. In 2008, the Folger Shakespeare Library helped to recover and return a First Folio that was described in West's census, which had been stolen in 1998 from Durham University.

>> Watch  |   Stealing Shakespeare
A documentary about the 2008 recovery of the stolen First Folio

235... and counting

Today, there are 235 recorded First Folios—that is, until the next one is discovered. Learn more about the 2014 discovery of a First Folio in Saint-Omer, France, from our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast interview with Eric Rasmussen, who confirmed its identity; you can also see the First Folio in this video from the Saint-Omer library. When asked if he still got a thrill from touching a First Folio, Rasmussen replied, "It’s rather like a doctor who delivers babies, and you may have delivered 230 babies, but each one is still a miracle, and each one is still beautiful, and that was a beautiful Folio in the north of France."

>> Watch  |   What lies behind a centuries-old obsession with the First Folio
A Folger video that includes Sotheby's Selby Kiffer