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Book of the Month

July 2001

Shakespeare: First Folio 

London: 1623

Sp Coll BD8-b.1

The July book of the month is Glasgow University's copy of the First Folio edition of the collected plays of William Shakespeare, published in 1623 some seven years after Shakespeare's death.


Only 18 of Shakespeare's plays appeared in print during his lifetime, and some of these were in corrupt or pirated editions. This collection contains 36 plays, 18 of which were here published for the first time, thus saving such works as The Tempest and Macbeth from probable extinction. Pericles, however, was excluded from this edition, and first appeared in the third folio of 1664. The plays were collected together by the actor editors John Heminge and Henry Condell. Although the title-page boast of the plays being printed 'according to the true originall copies' is undoubtedly a puffed up marketing device, Heminge and Condell had in fact been members of Shakespeare's theatre company: they presumably had access to playscripts and possibly worked from some original manuscripts in producing their edition.

According to a census of surviving First Folios, Glasgow's copy is Class II B, being 'in fair condition, but with leaves missing, or supplied from later Folios, or in facsimile'. Its preliminary (including the title-page with the famous Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare, shown here) and final leaves are indeed supplied from facsimiles. Examining the varying sizes and differing quality of paper used in the main body of text also suggests that this  is a 'made up' copy, utilizing pages from at least two if not several copies of the First Folio. Checking the signatures and other printing peculiarities of this edition, however, confirms that all the pages do seem to be from First Folios and have not, for example, been supplied from later editions. Making up entire copies of the Folio from several different incomplete copies in this way was a fairly common practice in the eighteenth century. Many book dealers - most famously, Thomas Roda- deliberately kept imperfect copies in stock specifically to plunder for replacement pages for otherwise imperfect volumes.

Although we do not know who owned our First Folio in the seventeenth century, we can generalise about the sort of person who might have first purchased it. Originally priced  at 1, this book was something of a luxury item, and it is in fact said that the English aristocracy owned most of the copies for the first 200 years. Certainly, the book was in the hands of the aristocracy by the eighteenth century. The volume still bears the armorial bookplate of the fifth Earl of Inchiquin (afterwards Marquis of Thomond) of Taplow Court, Buckinghamshire (1726-1808) who apparently acquired the book c.1780. The name 'Inchiquin' is also inscribed across the top of the opening of The Tempest. After this, we know that the book belonged to a John Haes of Stockwell thanks to a note left by J. O. Halliwell (later Halliwell-Phillipps), the bibliophile and prolific writer on Shakespeare, who purchased the book from Haes through Mr Adlard of Bartholomew Close on 22 August 1855. Halliwell-Phillipps sold the book to William Euing the following year, and the letter which accompanied it to Glasgow is still attached to the front flyleaf. In this letter, Halliwell-Phillipps states that he had three copies of the First Folio, of which this is his 'second best'; although the price of the book is not stated, it is described as being in remarkably fine condition generally for a 'low priced book'. The book was bequested to Glasgow University by William Euing along with the rest of his library when he died in 1874.

front flyleaf

page 1: beginning of The Tempest

Halliwell-Phillipps described this copy as being 'neither ragged nor rotten'. In fact, in common with most other surviving First Folios, the book shows considerable signs of wear and use, and many of its pages are stained and dirt engrained. However, evidence of heavy use by previous owners can offer us historical insights into earlier reading habits, and our copy is made particularly interesting for its annotations. Although anonymous, the marginalia are of importance since they suggest that the annotator actually saw the plays being acted contemporaneously; and while many of Shakespeare's plays had been first enacted some twenty five years before the production of the First Folio, this may still be regarded as a fairly immediate reaction to the works of one of the greatest playwrights.

names of the principall actors

The comments accompanying the names of the principal actors, for instance, would seem to suggest that the annotator knew or at least had seen some of the actors. For example, 'know' is written in by the name of Robert Benfield, 'by eyewittnesse' by that of John Lowine, and 'by report' underneath Richard Burbadge. The name of William Shakespeare, which heads the list, is accompanied by the intriguing comment 'Leass for making'*

close up

pages 44-45: opening from The Merry Wives of Windsor

The significant annotations all appear in the first section of the volume, comprising the 'comedies'. As has already been mentioned, this volume would appear to have been made up and the pages are mixed throughout this section: where the leaves are from the 'annotated' copy, they are heavily and consistently marked, but they are interspersed with leaves from another copy which are untouched.  It is exciting to consider that of all the other Folios still in existence, some counterpart 'annotated' leaves may yet be found in a similarly made up copy. The most obvious evidence of attentive reading is in the frequent underlining throughout the annotated plays. Besides this, the notation 'ap' would seem to be the reader's key marginal device, used  to highlight sections of particular interest; this is possibly an abbreviation of 'approbo' (I approve). 

page 60: ending of The Merry Wives of Windsor

The reader occasionally adds comments to the text as well, showing us his appreciation (or otherwise) of the plays. Unfortunately, the pages of the text were cropped in an eighteenth century rebinding of the volume, making many of these marginal annotations difficult to decipher. However, the comments given at the end of each play have not been affected. Thus, we learn that our early reader summed up The Two Gentlemen of Verona as being 'starke naught'. On the other hand, The Tempest is liked 'pretty well', and The Merry Wives of Windsor is lauded as  'very good; light'.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is particularly well annotated. This comment  accurately sums up  Ford's mistrust for his wife as being 'a good jealous mans dilemma'.

page 45: close-up of annotation

page 38: end of The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Such a large volume was a massive publishing venture and undoubtedly expensive to produce. It is speculated that the edition may have run to about 500 copies, probably produced by using two presses simultaneously. Corrections were made throughout the printing process - as a consequence,  it is said that no two copies are alike. Certainly, the book is riddled with typographical errors. Shown here, for example, is the page ending The Two Gentlemen of Verona, wrongly bearing the headline for The Merry Wives of Windsor which begins on the page following. However, while the Shakespeare First Folio might not be an outstanding example of seventeenth century printing, its cultural and literary significance is undisputed, and it remains one of the most important  and sought after books produced in England since printing began.

Second Folio: London, 1632: Euing BD8-b.2 and Hunterian Dr.2.3
Fourth Folio: London, 1685: Sp Coll f234

Early quarto editions: The history of Henrie the fourth London, 1599: Hunterian Co.3.27; The second part of Henrie the fourth London, 1600: Hunterian Co.3.27; The Tragoedy of Othello, the moore of Venice London: 1630: Euing BD1-c.51; The tragedy of king Richard the third London: 1629: Hunterian Co.3.22; The life and death of king Richard the second London, 1634: Hunterian Co.3.31; Poems London: 1640: Hunterian Cm.2.10

*update: September 2004
Professor Jonathan Bate of the University of Warwick suggests that this annotation actually reads as 'Least for making' (or possibly 'Ceast for making'). In other words, the comment could imply that Shakespeare did the 'least' acting of anyone in the company because his main job was writing ('making') the plays.

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Julie Coleman July 2001