Story of the First Folio: The Men behind our Familiarity with Shakespeare

I read a whole book about William Shakespeare recently (by Bill Bryson; highly recommended, by the way), and I learnt three things about him. That he lived in the 16th-17th century, that he wrote plays and acted in them, and that many of his plays are adaptations of other people’s work. What we don’t know about Shakespeare is a great deal more. We don’t know when he was born, how he spelled his name, the order in which his plays were written, or what religion he practiced. In fact, there are only three likenesses of the great man that still exist, by average artists. And, no one can really confirm if any of them are accurate depictions. This is not that surprising though. No record remains of the lives and works of many of his contemporaries, and it is a surprise that so many of his works survived. That is why the First Folio is such an important publication – the work that made Shakespeare a household name!

King Lear
Artist’s Impression of King Lear

The Three King’s Men

John Heminge was a freeman with the Grocer’s Company by 1587. He had great theatrical inclinations, and remained a steady face in the London theater scene all his life. Henry Condell, possibly a fishmonger’s son, was also an actor. The two worked together first in the Lord Strange’s Men company, and later in the King’s Men. Both were eventually listed sharers of the famous Globe Theater of London. It is in the King’s Men, they met the actor, playwright, William Shakespeare. Both men eventually featured in Shakespeare’s will and testament. So, it can be safely assumed that the colleagues became fast friends over their lifetime. 

Globe theater, London
Globe Theater, London. Pic courtesy: Martin Pettitt via Flickr

The First Folio

After Shakespeare’s death in 1616, the two friends, Heminge and Cordell decided to take on a project of collating his life’s work, and getting them published. They painstakingly collected Shakespeare’s plays, and brought them to publishers, Edward Blount and Isaac Jaggard. The book was published in 1623, 7 years after his death, with the title ‘Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies’.

Pages from First Folio, Bodlean Library, Oxford. Pic courtesy: Ben Sutherland via Flickr

Back in the day, important documents like royal proclamations, were printed in a large size paper called Folio. For some reason, this book was printed in that size, and the term ‘Folio’ stuck. The book sold well, and was reprinted with edits three times later, in 1632, 1663, and 1685 – the Second, Third, and Fourth Folios.

While the people behind the First Folio claim that the included plays are Shakespeare’s originals, the man wasn’t alive to verify this of course. But, for all practical purposes, the First Folio is considered the original Bard’s work. It is believed that less than 750 copies of the First Folio were published, 233 of which survive today. 

Rowe’s Edits

In 1709, Nicholas Rowe became the first man to edit Shakespeare’s plays. He made the plays ‘modern’, by adding act and scene divisions, exits and entrances, and dramatis personae. Following his suit, many publishers in the following centuries started printing the modern version of Shakespeare. By the 19th century, most respectable English language courses in the world had started to teach Shakespeare. 

It is thanks to Heminge and Condell, and later Rowe, that Shakespeare has come to be one of the best known litterateurs of the world. Without their efforts, he might have remained an obscure theater artist from the middle ages.

About Anumita Ghosh

Anumita believes her calling has to do with the written words. She loves to write and read, and has recently given up a(n) (almost) rocking career in the Corporate to pursue her passion. Yes, she is slightly off her rocker, but then the society has been largely accepting of her madness. She is the co-founder of Blank Slate Chronicles and a struggling domestic apprentice, not to mention a loving (yet inadequately skilled) mother to a toddler.

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