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The First Folio Anniversary

This year is the 400-year anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare's First Folio. While it has sometimes been described as the most important single book in history, you wouldn’t be alone if you don’t know what this is and why it matters, so please indulge my minor history lesson if you want to understand the concept behind our upcoming Beanstack challenge in April. You’ll be especially lucky in April since there will be a second Beanstack challenge, Celebrate Earth, to participate in. Participation in both together is highly encouraged! Check back to our blog page for more information and links on April 1. 

In 1623, seven years after his death, two of Shakespeare’s co-partners in the King’s Men acting company paid tribute to their friend by preserving his plays in a single volume. If not for Henry Condell and John Heminge editing the texts they had and putting the Folio together, about half of Shakespeare’s plays could have been lost to history entirely as they had never been individually published up to that point. There are a few known plays not in the First Folio: Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Love’s Labour’s Won, and Cardenio, with the latter two indeed lost to history. We know of their existence, but no trace of the scripts remain.

The folio format itself is interesting and historic. A folio is created when a large piece of printed paper is folded in half, creating four pages. This book format is larger and more expensive than the more common quarto (in which a sheet is folded in quarters and creates 8 pages). Until Condell and Heminge’s work with their publisher, there had never been a folio filled with plays. It was generally reserved for the sort of texts deemed more “important”, like religious or history texts. Shakespeare’s First Folio probably sold for the equivalent of about $200 today, and the fact that people were willing to make that kind of investment shows how special this compilation was. It’s worth a bit more today, with a copy selling in 2020 for close to $10 million.

235 copies of the First Folio survive, in differing conditions. We don’t know how many were originally printed, but at that time a run usually printed between 750 and 1,000 copies of a text. The fact that so many have survived (again, some better than others) over 400 years is impressive.

Another reason the Folio is important historically is due to the portrait on the title page. This image, known as the Droeshout Portrait after its artist, is not the most technically sophisticated engraving or an artistic masterpiece. But on the opposite page, the note to readers by playwright Ben Jonson points out that the likeness is Shakespeare's. It gives some definitive proof of what the man looked like according to those who knew him. 

The Folio also split the plays into three categories for the first time: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. For our challenge, you'll see that we added other common categorizations and therefore moved around some of the plays into different groupings. 


In honor of the milestone anniversary, FRVPLD will be celebrating in a few ways. First up is our Beanstack challenge, running April 1-30. April is the perfect month for the challenge as it is not only National Poetry Month, but also the month in which Shakesepeare’s birth and death date falls (April 23 in 1564 and 1616, respectively). This month-long challenge is going to be a little different from those that have come before in that it doesn't focus strictly on reading. We want to share all the ways in which Shakespeare's work is still relevant and accessible, whether that's reading, listening, or watching. Stay tuned for some more events to come this year. To learn more about the Folio and some of the global celebrations, check out a special Folio 400 website created for the anniversary year.