Explore the contents of the First Folio, just as a reader might have done in 1623—when the brand-new book offered the first chance to see some of Shakespeare's plays in print.
The First Folio famously includes 36 Shakespeare plays—18 of which had never been published before. But there's even more to the First Folio. The pages before the first play (The Tempest) are full of highlights: a portrait of Shakespeare that was approved by those who knew him; two poems by fellow playwright Ben Jonson; an introduction by the actor-editors John Heminge and Henry Condell; and much more.
Sample some pages from the First Folio in the gallery below, including famous passages from some of the plays that had never been published before. You can also look for common phrases from Shakespeare in the First Folio (like "it's high time"), see the entire book in our First Folio reader, or download the pages from our image database.
The printing is clear and legible. But some old-fashioned spelling—and how some letters appear—may surprise you. Here's how the letters have changed:
- The letters now written as I and J were essentially the same letter. The name "Jonson" probably sounded much as it does today. But "Ben Jonson" was spelled Ben Ionson. The poem by Ben Jonson that faces the title page is signed with the letters B I.
- The letters U and V both existed, but were often used interchangeably, or according to different rules than they are today. So the word Love appears as Loue: "If Musicke be the food of Loue, play on."
- The letter s or S appeared in two different forms. In some cases, the letter looked like it does now. In others, it is a "long s," which looks something like the letter f.
These two pages include a poem, "To the Reader," by Shakespeare's fellow playwright and friendly rival, Ben Jonson. Jonson writes about the title page's engraved portrait of Shakespeare, noting that it can only show us Shakespeare's appearance, not "his wit." He advises the reader seeking to know Shakespeare to “look, not on his picture, but his book.”
The engraving is an important image, however. It's one of the few portraits of Shakespeare to have been approved by those who had known Shakespeare themselves. It is credited to the artist Martin Droeshout in the small text just below it.
On the title page, the name "Shakespeare" is as large as one line of type can be, showing that it was a major selling point even years after his death. The full title of the First Folio includes the three categories into which the First Folio divided the plays: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Tragedies, & Histories.
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In this address to potential purchasers, John Heminge and Henry Condell begin with a lively sales pitch, writing “buy it first."
From the most able, to him that can but spell: There you are number'd. We had rather you were weighd. Especially, when the fate of all Bookes depends upon your capacities: and not of your heads alone, but of your purses. Well! It is now publique, & you wil stand for your priuiledges wee know: to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first.
They also praise how perfectly Shakespeare wrote out his plays. “His mind and hand went together,” they explain. “We have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.” Most researchers take these and other statements with a grain of salt.
Heminge and Condell had worked with Shakespeare for years and, like him, were actors and shareholders in the King’s Men. By the time of the First Folio, Heminge was the company's business manager. Shakespeare left money to both men in his will to buy memorial rings, a sign that he considered them good friends.
In addition to the short verse that appears next to the title page, Ben Jonson wrote another poem for the First Folio. The first page of the poem (not shown) includes the lines:
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
The second page of the poem, shown here, famously describes Shakespeare as the "Sweet Swan of Avon."
Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our James!
Shakespeare's later plays were performed at the Globe, across the River Thames from the city—thus making them "flights upon the banks of the Thames," in Jonson's image of Shakespeare as a swan. Jonson calls Shakespeare the "Sweet Swan of Avon," however, not the Thames, because Shakespeare was from Stratford, a town on the River Avon.
As for "Eliza and our James"? They are Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, King James I, who was also King James VI of Scotland. Elizabeth and James reigned during Shakespeare's career.
Heminge and Condell grouped Shakespeare's plays in the First Folio into three categories for the first time: the comedies, the histories, and the tragedies. They named the history plays according to the kings who reigned during the events in the plays and put the plays in the order of the kings’ reigns. Most of the history plays that were previously printed were already named for kings, but not all of them.
They also made sure to place a “new” play (one that wasn’t already available in print in a quarto) at the start of both the comedies and the tragedies. The Tempest leads off the comedies, even though Shakespeare wrote it late in his career, while Coriolanus heads the tragedies.
You may notice there are only 35 plays listed, even though there are 36 plays in the First Folio. That’s because the publishers obtained the rights to Troilus and Cressida very late in the process—too late to include it on this page, which was already printed by then. Although it’s not named here, the text for Troilus and Cressida appears in the First Folio after Henry VIII and before Coriolanus.
The 26 actors listed here, including Shakespeare himself, were the first to bring Shakespeare’s plays to life on the stage. Since women did not appear on the stage, men and boys played all of the male and female parts.
We can’t be sure of all the parts that each one played, but we know that Richard Burbage usually took the leading roles, including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Richard III, and, according to at least one scholar, Romeo. It’s believed the well-known comic actor William Kemp probably portrayed Falstaff, Bottom, Dogberry, and other comedic roles.
Our knowledge of these actors is not limited to lists of players like this one. Scholars have also found windows onto the close-knit world of the King’s Men through business documents, wills, marriage records, and even lawsuits.
This page from The Tempest has the famous speech by Miranda that includes the phrase "brave new world." In 1932, the British author Aldous Huxley wrote a novel about a disturbing future with the same title, used ironically: Brave New World.
Miranda's speech reads:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O, brave new world
The next page, not shown here, includes the following line:
That has such people in 't!
These lines from As You Like It begin Shakespeare's famous speech on the Seven Ages of Man:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
In the play, Jaques, a courtier, is living in the Forest of Arden as part of the remaining court of the exiled Duke Senior. He passes the time with philosophical musings. In this speech he discusses the seven stages of human life, with comparisons to theater and the stage—describing life as though each person is an actor taking on different roles.
Most of the seven “ages” that he describes are self-explanatory: the infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon, and a person in "second childishness." A "justice" means a judge. The sixth age, the "pantaloon," comes from the Italian comedy character Pantalone and refers to a feeble old man.
Some of Shakespeare's plays are well-known for their first lines. Richard III, for example, begins with Richard's speech, "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York." The Prologue for Henry V starts "O, for a muse of fire," and refers to the circular Globe, where the play was performed, as "this wooden O."
One of Shakespeare's more famous first lines is in Twelfth Night, shown here. In it, the melancholy Duke of Illyria seeks to end his love for Olivia by listening to too much music, thus becoming sick of love. Needless to say, his plan does not work.
If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
At the end of the fourth act of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius prepare for a fateful battle. Brutus encourages Cassius to press on to Philippi, arguing that they are, in effect, being brought forward by a surge of energy and enthusiasm that will inevitably fall off, if they do not "take the current when it serves":
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune
Many years (perhaps centuries) ago, someone who owned or read this particular First Folio was apparently so struck by Brutus's advice to seize the moment that he or she drew a bracket next to this speech on the page. Even simple marks like this help us to see now how readers from long ago engaged with the First Folio, including its stirring speeches.
The Second Witch in Macbeth utters these eerie, rhyming words, anticipating an evil visitor:
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Up to this point in the scene, the three witches have been concocting a gruesome brew in their cauldron and casting a charm with the phrase, "Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble." In the full script (although it is sometimes cut in performance), they are also joined by Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, who later leaves the stage.
It is only after all this malevolent activity that the Second Witch detects that something truly wicked is about to arrive: Macbeth. He enters after this speech. In 1962, science fiction author Ray Bradbury published a sinister fantasy novel, titled Something Wicked This Way Comes.