The First Folio is what scholars call the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays, whose true title is Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. Printed in 1623, the First Folio contains 36 of Shakespeare's plays and groups them into comedies, histories, and tragedies.
Why is the First Folio important?
Eighteen of the plays in the First Folio had never before been published and otherwise might have been lost: All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, 1 Henry VI, Henry VIII, Julius Caesar, King John, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Winter’s Tale.
No manuscript copies of the plays written in Shakespeare's handwriting have been found yet. Many people think, therefore, that the First Folio – compiled by his friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell seven years after his death in 1616 – is the closest thing we have to the plays as he wrote them.
The title page includes the famous Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare, considered an accurate likeness by those who knew him.
What is a folio?
A folio is a large book made by folding sheets of paper (approximately 14 x 18 inches) 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-sized book ever published in England devoted exclusively to plays. Before 1623, about half of Shakespeare's plays were published in quartos – small books made from folding larger sheets of paper twice to create eight pages per sheet. Quartos were like the easily disposable paperbacks of today, and very few of them survive.
How many First Folios exist?
Scholars think that about 750 copies of the First Folio were printed, which was a typical print run in the period. Of these, 235 First Folios are known to survive, including two discovered in 2016. The Folger Shakespeare Library has 82 copies, the largest collection in the world.
Each copy of the First Folio is unique. Many small changes and corrections were made during the printing process, and over the years successive owners have rebound or otherwise tried to improve their copies.
What came after the First Folio?
The First Folio was followed by the Second Folio in 1623, the Third Folio in 1664, and the Fourth Folio in 1685.