When three Shakespearean actors performed at the Vatican in 1964, the stakes were high: Among the 2,000 observers packed into the auditorium were cardinals, dignitaries and even Pope Paul VI, who looked on from a raised chair.

After the show, one of the actors, Dorothy Tutin, approached the pope clutching a rare copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio, the earliest collection of the Bard’s plays ever published. This particular volume belonged to the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Tutin had carried it with her to the Vatican in preparation for this moment.

Would the pontiff be willing to bless the book, she asked?

Paul, who didn’t hear her request, misread the situation.

Folio copy of Macbeth
Macbeth is among the 18 plays that would have been lost to history without the Folio. Folger Shakespeare Library

“It will make a beautiful memento for this occasion,” he said, passing the volume to an aide, who promptly vanished. The pope, the actors realized, had mistakenly accepted the Folio as a gift.

After some behind-the-scenes diplomacy, the company retrieved the book—then worth an estimated $60,000—from the Vatican. Today, editions of the text fetch far higher prices. In 2020, a copy sold for nearly $10 million, making the Folio the world’s most expensive work of literature.

This year, the Folio turns 400. It was—and still is—one of the English language’s foundational texts. Without it, “we wouldn’t even be talking about Shakespeare,” says Emma Smith, a Shakespearean scholar at the University of Oxford and the author of Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book.

Published in 1623, the 900-page tome cemented the Bard’s legacy and permanently muddled the boundaries between popular culture and high art. It also saved half of his plays: Of the 36 included in the collection, 18 had never been published.

Folio bindings
Errors were corrected during the print run, so copies of the text contain small discrepancies. Folger Shakespeare Library

Because it debuted seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the book is also one of the first serious efforts to engage with the plays in the absence of their author. “The First Folio stands as the gatepost to post-Shakespeare Shakespeare, if you like,” says Smith. “It’s a posthumous collection. He probably had nothing to do with the conception of publishing in this way.”

“It’s the moment,” she adds, “when we leave him behind.”

Who created the Folio?

History owes the Folio’s existence to John Heminge and Henry Condell, two actors who knew nothing of the book business. But they knew a great deal about Shakespeare, having performed with his acting company, the King’s Men, for many years. When the playwright died in 1616, he left both men money to purchase mourning rings, indicating he considered them close friends.

The pair compiled the Folio in the years that followed, though scholars aren’t certain what compelled them to pursue the project—or “what role friendship, theater loyalties and publishing economics played in the whole thing,” says Smith. Based on the Folio’s preface, Heminge and Condell clearly held Shakespeare in high regard. “His mind and hand went together,” they write. “Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe.”

Logistically, the publication process was “difficult and laborious,” involving “a lot of negotiation—and quite a lot of financial investment,” says Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham in England. The friends ran into myriad legal, financial and procedural issues. They secured one play, Troilus and Cressida, so late in the process that it isn’t even listed in the table of contents.

Folio table of contents
The Folio separated Shakespeare's works into comedies, histories and tragedies for the first time. Folger Shakespeare Library

To increase efficiency, mistakes were fixed as the books were printed. “If they caught an error, they would correct it in the middle of the run—and to save money, they wouldn’t throw away the sheets that were not correct,” says Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. “So every First Folio is a random collection of corrected and uncorrected pages.”

Weighing in at nearly five pounds, the Folio debuted a year later than initially advertised. The bound book cost £1. Compared with the price of purchasing each play separately, buying them in bulk via the Folio wasn’t a bad deal. Still, £1 was a lot of money in the 17th century, roughly $200 today. In the preface, the two editors insist to interested readers that the book’s success “depends upon your capacities and not of your heads alone, but of your purses. … Whatever you do, buy.”

The title page alone includes several historically significant firsts. The name of the Folio itself, Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, divided Shakespeare’s work into these three categories for the first time. The title page also features artist Martin Droeshout’s engraved portrait of Shakespeare, one of the few known surviving images of the Bard. On the opposite page, a poem by the playwright Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s friend and rival, comments on the portrait, imploring readers to “look / Not on his picture, but his book.”

Ben Jonson's address to the reader
To the left of an engraving by artist Martin Droeshout—one of the few surviving portraits of William Shakespeare—the poet Ben Jonson instructs readers to "look / Not on his picture, but his book." Folger Shakespeare Library

The preface includes several other poems that meditate on how Shakespeare will live on through his work. “For though his line of life went soone about / The life yet of his lines shall never out,” writes the poet Hugh Holland. Poet Leonard Digges addresses the playwright directly in his tribute, writing that “every line, each verse / Here shall revive, redeem thee from thy hearse.”

The longest poem, a eulogy, is also by Jonson. He writes:

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.

What made folios important?

Before the First Folio, some of Shakespeare’s plays had been published in quarto—small, cheap volumes akin to modern paperbacks. Few examples survive today. Packaged as popular entertainment, quartos weren’t meant to last.

Folios were large, sturdy tomes meant to withstand the test of time and traditionally reserved for works of theology, history or esteemed classics. The only other English-speaking playwright published in folio format at the time was Jonson, whose volume The Workes of Benjamin Jonson came out the year of Shakespeare’s death. The book’s publication—and Jonson’s daring to characterize his plays as “works”—drew ridicule, with one critic writing, “Pray tell me Ben, where doth the mystery lurke / What others call a play you call a worke.”

Unlike Shakespeare, Jonson published his folio when he was in his 40s and “very much still alive,” which perhaps made for poor optics, says Smith. She likens Jonson to a “30-something poet in our time producing their collected works. Everybody would just say, ‘It’s a bit self-important, isn’t it?’”

Even so, that early folio opened the door for Shakespeare’s work, which achieved what his friend’s could not. Presented via the trappings of high literature, Shakespeare’s plays were accepted as such. They weren’t just a diversion for the masses; they were art.

First Folio photographed for auction in 2016
Press photographers take pictures of a First Folio that sold at auction for $2.75 million in 2016. Chris Ratcliffe / Getty Images

The First Folio makes the case that “the kind of shows people just watch because they like them matter,” says Dobson. “Vernacular drama—stuff not written in Latin, stuff people just go to see—it matters. It’s worth having. It’s worth saving.”

Without the Folio, half of Shakespeare’s plays would most likely be lost to history. “Admittedly, we’d still have Hamlet, we’d still have Othello,” says Dobson, but no Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale or The Tempest.

Packaged together, the 36 plays took on the shape of a cohesive canon. “You can see the incredible range of this writer’s output—and you can hold it all,” says Dobson. “It feels great having a Folio in your hands.”

How many Folios have survived 400 years?

Historians aren’t certain how many First Folios were printed in 1623, but they think the total was around 750. Now, at least 235 copies remain. Contemporary Shakespeare fans know quite a lot about these copies, as several scholars across multiple generations have devoted their careers to tracking them down.

One of the first lists dates to 1902, when British scholar Sidney Lee published a census of extant copies, recording 152 verified volumes. Nearly a century later came Anthony James West, a Harvard University graduate who worked his way up to vice president at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. At age 58, after 35 years in management consulting, he decided to change course: He left his job, enrolled in graduate school and started traveling the globe, searching for First Folios. When he published his astonishingly comprehensive census in the early 2000s, he had tracked down some 80 additional copies. As West told Smithsonian magazine in 2006, “I’ve nearly spent my life savings on this.”

French librarian Rémy Cordonnier with Folio
French librarian Rémy Cordonnier stumbled upon this genuine copy of the First Folio in 2014.  Denis Charlet / AFP via Getty Images

The latest Folio finder is Eric Rasmussen, a Shakespearean scholar at the University of Nevada, Reno, who co-published an updated census with West in 2012. Along with a team of research assistants, they spent over a decade documenting 232 versions of the text (though several others have popped up since then). “We visited every copy,” he says, “and we recorded every detail about it: its owners, its bindings, its watermarks.” He hasn’t examined every copy personally—he sends assistants to particularly far-flung locations—but estimates he’s clocked about 200 himself.

“I’ve probably seen more First Folios than anyone else on the planet,” he says.

Rasmussen has also followed a number of disappointing leads, sometimes hearing from people who think they’ve stumbled upon a genuine copy. Often, these texts are merely 19th-century facsimiles. The difference, he explains, comes down to the paper, as well as several unique watermarks. Rasmussen says he can tell whether a copy is authentic “almost instantaneously.”

Still, legitimate copies materialize every so often. “A couple of years ago,” says Rasmussen, “I got an email from a public librarian in France saying, ‘I think I found a First Folio.’ And I said, ‘I think you didn’t.’” When he checked it out, he realized the library was right. The copy had been overlooked for so long simply because it was missing the title page.

Some promising leads remain unverified, such as one owned by a family in Japan. “[When] we first approached them, they said, ‘Oh, we’re sorry. My husband put it in his will that no one could look at the First Folio until 13 years after his death.’ We’re like, ‘Wow, that’s weird,’” recalls Rasmussen. “But we waited, and we went back 13 years later—and they wanted nothing to do with us.” He wonders if they’d identified a “long-lost stolen copy,” though he can’t be sure without seeing it.

The Folios are a frequent target for thieves: In 2002, a man named Raymond Scott approached scholars with a copy he claimed to have obtained from one of Fidel Castro’s bodyguards. The Folio had actually been stolen from a British university library. As Rasmussen writes in his book The Shakespeare Thefts, Scott later arrived at his trial “in a silver stretch limo, dressed in all white, holding a cigar and a cup of instant noodles, and reading aloud (A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!) from Shakespeare’s Richard III.”

At 400 years old, the Folios no longer simply preserve Shakespeare’s stories; they are living records of how generations of readers engaged with his work.

If you examine enough Folios, you’ll find copies with cigar burns, wine stains and even paw prints from a cat. Owners have calculated household finances in their text’s margins, and children have practiced their ABCs. One of Rasmussen’s favorites is a copy that was pierced by a bullet. “It stops at Titus Andronicus,” he says, “which is clearly an impenetrable play.”

Due to the high price tag, many Folio owners treat their copies with a reverence that necessitates disengagement. “It’s become a sort of relic that nobody hardly dares touch,” says Smith. “But that certainly wasn’t the case for most of the 17th and the 18th centuries.” Smith’s favorite is the copy held by Oxford’s Bodleian Library—“my local copy, if you like”—but broadly speaking, she prefers texts that hint at the presence of a reader.

Heminge and Condell's address to the reader
Shakespeare's "mind and hand went together," write Heminge and Condell in an address to the reader. "Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe." Folger Shakespeare Library
Treasures of the Bodleian: Shakespeare's 'First Folio'

Dobson, who says he has also “met a few copies of the book over the years,” recalls one with a love poem scrawled between two of the lines. “At some point in Henry VI, Part II, some very early 17th-century or 18th-century reader—clearly their mind has wandered.”

His favorite, however, is the copy held by his university. “It’s got some misprints in the letters by which you identify which collection of folded pages gets sewn to which,” he explains. The binder followed these instructions, neglecting to check whether the pages ran in consecutive order. As a result, about a third of As You Like It is missing. In its place, other parts of the play are repeated.

“It’s like As You Like It rewritten by [Samuel] Beckett,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to try and persuade a company to perform the version exactly as it’s printed in that copy and see if anybody notices.”

The myth of the one true text

Heminge and Condell saw the Folio—despite its flaws—as the definitive edition of Shakespeare’s canon. The pair scorned all previously published quarto versions of the plays, disparaging them in their book’s preface as “stolen and surreptitious” copies that were “deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious imposters.” The Folio, they insist, is the real deal.

For some time, many experts subscribed to that view. According to Dobson, editors used to imagine that a “correct” version of each play had once existed, and it was their job to “deduce what the one true text of Hamlet is.”

The discrepancies between versions aren’t trivial. In the Folio’s King Lear, for instance, the final lines (“The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much nor live so long.”) are spoken by Edgar. In the quarto text, the Duke of Albany gets the last word. In some cases, editors don’t side with either version, instead publishing texts that pull from both. The result is a third version that “never previously existed [and] isn’t either one of them,” says Smith. “It’s their sense of what’s the best compromise between the two versions.”

More recently, a new understanding has emerged. Scholars now recognize that acting companies likely changed the scripts to suit their needs. The conflicting versions, says Dobson, are simply “snapshots of a play at different moments in its performance history.” With this approach, Shakespeare’s plays become living documents, and reimaginings of the Bard are encouraged rather than dismissed. Instead of placing the plays on a pedestal, readers gain the agency to use them as a tool.

First Folio at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.
A copy of the First Folio on view for the 400th anniversary at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. Ellen Wexler

Witmore sees the Folio’s anniversary as a time to celebrate the text’s universal resonance. “We live in a world that is so different from his,” he says, “but every generation makes Shakespeare their own, and every generation fights with him and loves him in their own way.”

The Folger Shakespeare Library, where Witmore serves as director, has 82 First Folios, the largest concentration in the world. To mark the anniversary, the organization is displaying one of those copies at the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in D.C., along with an exhibition that connects the Folio to the city’s go-go and punk rock scenes—both movements that were created by locals living on the margins of powerful institutions.

Smith takes a similar approach to the anniversary. She’s less interested in Shakespeare’s original intentions, preferring to celebrate how readers have interpreted his work over four centuries. The text itself is “not the answer. It’s not a Bible, it’s not a book of scripture—although I think some people have come to treat it that way,” she says. “It’s a book of ideas and possibilities and alternative plays waiting to happen.”

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