Shakespeare's First Folio

What it was, how it came about

Mr William Shakespeares First Folio When you read any edition of Shakespeare, you are not reading the original, you are not reading what he wrote, you are reading an editor's interpretation of the original lines.

Some of Shakespeare's plays were published during his lifetime, but half of them were only published for the first time in the First Folio seven years after his death, in 1623. The edition was presented by two fellow shareholders and actors John Heminge and Henry Condell (click here to see Heminge and Condell's Introduction). Because the words in the Folio are not identical to those in the earlier published single copies of the plays, and because of perceived errors in the text, all subsequent editors have picked a single version, quarto or folio, as their "copytext", and have relegated the other to footnotes, but will take a word from the other version if they feel it is justified; similarly they will emend the text in ways sanctioned by editorial guidelines if they think it obscure.

Editors also tend to modernise punctuation and spelling, and sometimes to regularise the text, breaking prose into poetry and/or poetry into prose, and "justifying" broken lines so that they always make up a pentameter, as well as removing capitals from many words. The result is a text that is often quite far from Quarto or Folio, and that may indeed work better as "literature" than for performance. They do not agree with each other, and so there are now many, many variations offered for each piece of Shakespeare.

We have found that playing the text from the First Folio has huge advantages. For the past thirty years we have always used it in our Classes and Workshops and with the Original Shakespeare Company, and have found that this original script offers more help and guidance for the actors than modern edited texts. When we get an actor to redo any piece they have done in the past, but this time using the Folio, their performance always seems to improve.

The First Folio is not always grammatical or logical, but we believe it is fundamentally theatrical. To us, it bears the hallmarks of the texts that make it up - which were, we maintain, written to be acted. We therefore feel that the First Folio text is packed full of instructions to actors who had to present plays at such a rate that there was no time for rehearsals in the modern sense of the word, and there was not even the complete script to study, only their own lines. Given this, the actual words to be spoken were the only things the actor could base his performance on, and so the original text is important and fascinating.

The Folio's punctuation seems to us to resemble natural speech patterns; we find the original punctuation is revealing, for it defines where the individual thoughts end, which is a very important note for the person who has to act the speech.

The original spelling in the Folio often helps you to understand what accent to use, or what emphasis to make, as in one speech your character may change from a long drawn out "mee" to a simple "me", and back again.

The First Folio contains a set of directorial instructions from 400 years ago, and a lot more about this whole subject is in Secrets of Acting Shakespeare - the original approach, published by Routledge. For more books about or using Folio materials, and working from Parts, see Publications.

History of the First Folio printing

During Shakespeare's lifetime, some of his plays were printed as a small booklet, known as a Quarto. The words Quarto and Folio refer to the size of the page. Some Quartos were pirated copies with rather jumbled text, probably taken down by shorthand writers and given to a printing shop; these are sometimes known as bad Quartos. Others were printed in a proper form that seems to have been sanctioned by the theatre company, and these are known as Good Quartos. However, when Shakespeare died in 1616, eighteen of his plays had not been printed at all.

The main actor of the company, Richard Burbadge, had died in 1619, and in 1621 two fellow shareholders and fellow actors of Shakespeare, John Heminge and Henry Condell, having collected the relevant material, started the printing of the collected works of Shakespeare, that became known as the First Folio. The only text for the eighteen plays not printed as a Quarto comes from this volume, and they are:

Alls Well, that Ends Well
Anthonie, and Cleopatra
As you Like it
The Comedie of Errors
The first Part of Henry the Sixt
King Henry the Eight
Julius Cæsar
King John
Measure, For Measure
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Twelfe Night
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Tymon of Athens
The Winters Tale

The text for the plays would have come from a variety of sources; some from Quartos already printed, others from the Book, and there has even been a suggestion that the actors' Parts may have been gathered to reconstruct a particular play. It is our firm belief that those who acted in the plays would have a vested interest in seeing that what was printed was in fact what they had acted, and so we keep to the Folio text as the closest we can get to what was originally done. Even if the punctuation and spelling was altered by the compositors, at least it was a seventeenth century person who was putting the words into print, and not one from an age many years down the line.

Pericles was first printed as a Bad Quarto, and was not included in the First Folio, but did appear in the Third and Fourth Folios. We have used the text from the Third Folio, but we have to warn you that this version lacks the oversight that we believe the actors Heminge and Condell gave to the First Folio, and which we feel is so important.

The final cost of the First Folio was £1, or (putting it into a modern context), 240 times the price of the cheapest theatre seat. The exact print run is not known, but there exist in the world today some 228 copies out of a possible 1000. Careful comparison between all the pages reveals that there was an element of proof reading; in fact, one copy contains a sheet (from Anthonie, and Cleopatra) that has the proof reader's marks still written on it.

Since the 1980s, a great deal more attention has been paid to the Folio text than before, and with productions and actors increasingly basing their interpretations upon it, it has been shown that there is a huge wealth of information waiting to be unlocked from the texts of the First Folio.