The first collection of Shakespeare’s complete works, known as ‘The First Folio‘, is arguably the most important document in the cultural history of Europe. Without it there would be no such thing as ‘William Shakespeare’. It is almost a miracle that the First Folio (Complete Works of William Shakespeare) exists at all, given that playwrights tried to keep their plays out of print – mainly to avoid them being pirated – that Shakespeare never published any of his plays, and that not one of Shakespeare’s manuscripts has survived. We owe this book and the fact that we have the texts of so many of the bard’s plays to the enterprise of two actors. John Hemminge and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors, edited the collection.
The First Folio (Complete Works of William Shakespeare) were set out in the three categories of Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, a categorisation that still dogs the practice of Shakespeare criticism, education and performance today. Hemminge and Condell probably had copies of the plays in Quartotexts, the scripts used by the actors in performance. It was from these that the First Folio would have been compiled. The editors knew Shakespeare and his work intimately and had worked with him for years. The playwright actually mentioned them in his will, leaving them money to buy themselves rings.
The Printer and Publisher of the First Folio was William Jaggard and his son Isaac. It was a major venture, both in editing and printing. It consisted of 36 plays and amounted to 900 pages – a huge book. About 500 copies of the First Folio wereprinted and sold at the price of £1 each. Two hundred and thirty-eight known copies exist today of which a third are in the Shakespeare Folger Library in Washington. The First Folio was printed seven years after the death of William Shakespeare in 1616. During the four hundred years since then there have been thousands of publications of the complete works of William Shakespeare in hundreds of languages and it is one of the most common books to be found in the bookshops of the world.
The title page of the First Folio displayed a copper engraved image of Shakespeare by the engraver Martin Droeshout: