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During his lifetime, only about half of Shakespeare’s plays were available in printed versions.That meant that there were several of Shakespeare’s plays that weren’t available in printed form at all while the bard was alive. So how do we know about those plays today if there weren’t any written records? They survive through a book called the First Folio. There are at least 18 plays from Shakespeare’s works that we only have today because of the printing of the First Folio that happened in 1623. If you have heard about the printing of the first Folio then you’ll probably recognize the names Heminges and Condell, Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues, who are often regarded as the authors of the First Folio. What the history shows us, however is that the making of First Folio was not done solely by two men, but instead was a collective work done by a large network of individuals that were friends, and fans of Shakespeare, as well as business men looking to capitalize on an opportunity. Our guest this week, Chris Laoutaris, has done in-depth investigative research into the history behind the making of the First Folio, that he shares in his latest book titled Shakespeare’s Book, that’s out now. We’re delighted to have Chris here today to discuss his book and to reveal a fresh perspective and some new discoveries about the people and the history that gave us the First Folio. 

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Chris Laoutaris is a Shakespeare scholar, biographer, and historian whose specialties include the history of Shakespeare’s theaters, women’s history, Renaissance politics, the early modern body and medicine, and the history of death, burial and commemoration. His most recent work is Shakespeare’s Book :The Story Behind the First Folio and the Making of Shakespeare (in the UK, it is titled “Shakespeare’s Book: The Intertwined Lives Behind the First Folio“) which explores new research into the history of the making of the First Folio. Chris is also the author of Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe that looks at the life of Lady Elizabeth Russell and her impact on the theater industry, including Shakespeare’s Globe. Hear Chris’ episode with us on Lady Elizabeth Russell here. | Explore more of Chris’ work here.

I’ll be asking Chris Laoutaris about:

  • Our first question comes from our listeners here at That Shakespeare Life who are brand new to the concept of the First Folio. Since it is a collection of Shakespeare’s works, is it called a folio in the sense of an artists’ portfolio, or is that title mean something else?
  • How hard was it for the men who created the First Folio to put that together, were there any specific obstacles they had to overcome in order to produce it?  
  • Was it traditional to publish plays in a collected format to memorialize the artist after their death or was this project a special tribute for Shakespeare done by his friends? 
  • …and more!

Ben Higgins, Shakespeare’s Syndicate: The First Folio, its Publishers, and the Early Modern Book Trade (Oxford University Press, 2022) 📚

Emma Smith, Shakespeare’s First Folio: 400 years of an iconic book (Oxford University Press, 2016; new edition 2023)

Katherine Scheil, Imagining Shakespeare’s Wife: The Afterlife of Anne Hathaway (Cambridge University Press, 2018)

Anne-thology: Poems Re-Presenting Anne Shakespeare, edited by Paul Edmondson, Aaron Kent, Chris Laoutaris and Katherine Scheil (Broken Sleep Books, 2023), All proceeds from this book go towards supporting the children’s education initiatives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (a registered charity). Link here:

One of the copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio when it was on display in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s me (Cassidy Cash) standing next to it on the right. It was so cool to see the Folio in person! | Image by Tim Cash.

What does “First Folio” Mean?

Our listeners here at That Shakespeare Life wrote in and asked about why the First Folio is called a folio. In modern vernacular, we are used to an artist’s collective works being described as a portfolio, but for Shakespeare, the word “folio” meant something else. Chris explains:

This folio was the first published edition of Shakespeare’s plays. [That’s why it is the “First” Folio, instead of second or third…]

[The word] sounds like a portfolio, but it has a different connotation today. It was one of the most important literary accomplishments in history because at least 18 [of Shakespeare’s plays including] Macbeth, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Twelfth Night, and Antony and Cleopatra, are all preserved within it’s pages. It is hard to imagine a world without these plays. We owe a great deal to these people for preserving these works. [As far as being called a “Folio], this is the term we give to a large format volume. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, some of his works were printed as quartos, they were individual publications in a much smaller format. The folio is done by taking a large sheet and folding it in half, to give us four sides to print material on. This is a large format volume.” 

Chris describes the various mechanics of the parts of a folio, but it might help to think of it as a large coffee table book. It was formatted to physically take up significant space.

It’s called a folio in sixes, which means bundles of 6 sheets, folded in half, which is 12 sides of printing space. We sew these together to make a quire, and the quires are sewn together and now it’s A Folio. It’s hard to make and it is an expensive item. It was often decorated with ornamental accents, and it was very heavy. You would need a desk and a proper space to read it and engage with it, because it would have been hefty. It would have cost 16 shillings to purchase (£120 today). It was for deep pocketed individuals, and was a luxury item. During this period, books were sold without binding, so if you wanted a bound cover, you paid extra for the biding options you chose. It was by all accounts a very expensive book and at the time it was published it was the most expensive book of plays up to that point. 

This is a leather cover of copy 68 of the First Folio. According to some scholars, it is believed that no more than 750 copies were made, and of those, Folger Shakespeare Library owns over 80 copies. | Original language title: “Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies” 1623 | Public Domain | Source

Obstacles In the Way of Creating the First Folio

The summarization of the story of the Folio that condenses the tale into “Friends compiled Shakespeare’s works into a book after he died” makes the process sound like it was both simple and quick. However, what Chris’ research shines a light upon is that the process was actually pretty difficult, and not only filled with practical obstacles, but a lengthy process as well, which explains why it was almost a decade after Shakespeare died when the book was published.

Finding all of the plays and securing the rights

The first obstacle was the rights to the plays. While some of the plays were owned by Shakespeare’s playing company, The King’s Men, and therefore readily available to the Syndicate [we’re going to use this phrase to describe the group planning to publish the Folio throughout these notes], others had to be located, and acquired through a lengthy and persistent, legal process.

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, he didn’t own the rights to his own plays, they were collective assets belonging to the playing company to which he belonged (the King’s Men) towards the end of his career, they sold on the rights to several plays to other companies to give them the right to print them. One estimation suggests Shakespeare’s works dominate at least 4% of the entire publishing industry at the the end of his life. At least half of the plays had been sold which meant the playing company didn’t have the rights anymore. Up to 22 plays, previously licensed, had to be determined. The King’s Men held on to the rights of 14 plays outright, so those were easy, they transferred those rights to publishers of the First Folio and financiers. The first folio was supported by four Bookselling businesses: William and Isaac Jaggard, Edward Blount, John Smith, and William Asby. These people owned 8 plays, so [the group looking to publish all of Shakespeare’s works] still needed to locate at least 14 other plays. They had to negotiate the rights for all of those other plays. The plays started being sold off in the mid 1590s, so it was at least 3 decades of seeing they had to track down. 

Related Episode from Our Back Catalog

Hear Paul Edmondson, Head of Research at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, share with us the history of Heminges and Condell, and their friendship with William Shakespeare.

Page from Jonson’s play, Sejanus, showing the list of actors including William Shakespeare, John Heminges, and Henry Condell. (SR – OS – 80 Jonson) The workes of Benjamin Ionson, principal actors in Sejanus | Shakespeare Birthplace Trust | Source

Financing the physical publishing of the book

The second largest obstacle the men faced when looking to publish the First Folio was the sheer expense of the job they had decided to undertake. As Chris explains, the cost of the materials and labor involved in the printing of the First Folio cost more than some men of the period would have made in an entire year.

“…it was a pricey endeavor, the cost to produce was 6 shillings 8 pence, and with a print run of 750 copies, there was an outlay of £250 to print [the First Folio] one time. [The total cost is] well over £33,000 [over $41K USD] By comparison, gold smithing or shoe making brought in £14k [About $17,5000 USD] annually, so this was a huge sum of money. The syndicate also had to pay for paper stocks, and paper was expensive at this time. Their paper was imported from France. According to one calculation, across its’ first print run, it needed 180,000 sheets of this paper, at the cost of more than £81, which is over £11,000 today. [Over $13,700 USD]

The entire process of raising the funds to produce this book can be thought of as the 16th century version of a crowdsourcing campaign.

So was the Folio a Memorial or a Business venture?

While the backers of Shakespeare’s First Folio were his friends, and likely motivated by that friendship to want to see his works preserved, this endeavor was also a profitable one for the businessmen looking to use this Folio as an investment opportunity. Shakespeare’s name was hugely popular at the time of his death, and a Folio of collective works was something traditionally reserved for monarchs or heads of state. To publish Shakespeare’s works in Folio format was not only innovation, it was a promising business prospect that would pay off significantly.

“There was the element of memorization but ultimately, this was business. No one publishes books without the intent for a return on investment, but the Folio was also an innovation in some respects. In 1616, Ben Jonson’s collected works was published and was a controversial endeavor because 1) it included public plays and 2) it was called “Works” and in this period, playwright was not considered a prestigious career, in fact the keeper of the Bodelian refused to hold play books because it would disgrace the library. Folios were reserved for elevated works of literature. Texts of religious, history, or books by monarchs—James I, issued his writing sin Folio format, etc. Jonson published his collection under the word “works” which was only for significant publications of history, religion, or those who were learned figures, and definitely not plays. For Ben Jonson, he had scorn heaped upon him for his temerity to call his commercial plays “works” And one satirist wrote “Pray tell me Ben, where doth the mystery lurk, What others call a play, you call a work?” (This is from George Herbert’s Wit’s Recreations (published in 1640) The Shakespeare First Folio went one step further, only including commercial plays. It was referred to more than once as “works,” and if that wasn’t bad enough, it was then published in a folio format. So it was as much a political statement as it was an investment. It made the Folio a unique proposition…”

This is the 1623 Title page from one of the First Folio copies. This is the portrait known as the “Droeshout Portrait” of Shakespeare, because it was done by Martin Droeshout. It’s unclear when Droeshout completed the engraving, or what sources he used for it, but this drawing is one of only two portraits of Shakespeare considered reliably to be the image of William Shakespeare. This engraving was first published in the First Folio in 1623 | Public Domain | Source

Even the Artwork Signaled Political Statements

The Folio was put together in a way that highlighted political current events happening in the mid 17th century. As Chris explains, everyone was up in arms about the Spanish Match—which was James I plan to marry his son, Prince Charles, to the Infanta Maria, the sister to King Philip IV of Spain. Now, England was at enmity with Spain. They had been fighting over colonies in the new world, fighting over control of the seas, and Spain was Catholic, which was opposed to Protestant England, so there was more than a little political tension about James’s ideas on pursuing peace with Spain.

[This political climate] shapes the Folio since everyone involved in the production of it was pushing James I’s foreign policy. Some examples of this include the fact Leonard Digges and James Mabbe, who contributed poems in memory of Shakespeare (who were among the group of poets who shaped Shakespeare’s posthumous identity through the First Folio) translated Spanish works into English. These works were published by Edward Blount, one of the senior financial backers. Blount was, like Mabbe and Digges, in the business of promoting Spanish literature and culture in England. Blount actually brought to England works of Spanish literature, including those be Cervantes, and he and Aspley were part of a syndicate which funded a Spanish dictionary. Ben Jonson, who wrote two poems commemorating Shakespeare in the First Folio, provided courtly entertainments that promoted the Spanish Match and was therefore a principal propagandist for the union. The King’s Men were also performing a run of Spanish-themed plays while the Folio was being printed.

Chris outlines the various aspects of the making of the Folio, including the artist, Martin Droeshout, who is responsible for the engraving of Shakespeare found in the front of the First Folio. This engraving is considered one of only two reliable images of Shakespeare, and even Martin Droeshout’s involvement in this drawing for the Folio can be seen as a political move.

Close up of Martin Droeshout’s signature under the picture on the First Folio of Shakespeare | Public Domain | Source

Martin Droeshout, was also a Hispanophile, immigrating to Spain after producing the portrait, probably because he was Catholic. Another memorializer of Shakespeare, Hugh Holland, also wrote a poem in memory of Shakespeare in the First Folio, and he was Catholic too.. So what the Folio did was preserve within its pages, a propaganda for an Anglo-Spanish alliance. They reflect the political controversies of the time.  

Martin Droeshout’s engraving of Francisco de la Peña, c. 1639, who is said to have been given the same headshape as Shakespeare by Droeshout. Original caption: “Retrato de Francisco de la Peña, talla dulce, firmado MARten / DR sculpsit en Madrid, author Martin Droeswoode-Biblioteca Nacional de España” | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. | Source | Image on the Nacional de España page

Martin Droeshout completed 10 (known) Spanish engravings in his lifetime, all depicting people and objects of Catholic significance. These Spanish engravings were a departure from works that can be attributed to Droeshout prior to 1632, when he was completing works that were directly Protestant. One scholar suggests that Droeshout’s portrait of a Spanish lawyer named Francisco de la Peña (who was instrumental in the canonization of several Catholic saints) was painted in the same head shape as Shakespeare. (Schuckman, Christiaan (1991). “The Engraver of the First Folio Portrait of William Shakespeare”. Print QuarterlyVIII (1): 40–3. ISSN 0265-8305. Read more on that opinion here.)

The Signet Sonnet

I was researching a printed play by Ben Jonson, written in 1603, published in 1605, Sejanus. It was originally held by Edward Blount, who was one of the financiers of the First Folio, and the front matter included a poem by Hugh Holland. This interested me because there’s a group of people here also attached to the First Folio. 

While I was looking over this play in its printed form, my eye fell on something that intrigued me…beneath the sonnet by Hugh Holland, there’s another sonnet, and it’s signed with a pseudonym, “Cygnus”—in mythology who was a swan, transformed into a constellation. 

Ben Jonson refers to Shakespeare as a swan of Avon, and the poem reminded him of Shakespeare’s style, so I wondered if it would be possible that the Cygnus sonnet is actually by Shakespeare. Ben Jonson had also referred to Hugh Holland as “the swan” as well, but the more I looked at those two sonnets side by side, the more different the style appeared. 

Dr. Martin Wiggins, I emailed him “Do you know anyone who has ever thought the Cygnus sonnet might be by Shakespeare?” And he replied, “Yes, me.” 

Chris goes on to share that he felt validated in his suspicion about the Signet poem and shares in his book more on the conclusions they came to about the Signet sonnet.

Creator: Sealed and signed by William Shakespeare, William Johnson and John Jackson Title: Deed of Mortgage by William Shakespeare, of Stratford-upon-Avon, and others, to Henry Walker of London, of the Blackfriars Gate-House Date: March 11, 1613 Repository: The British Library, London, UK Call number and opening: Egerton MS 1787 | The British Library has graciously contributed the above images to Shakespeare Documented under a Creative Commons Public Domain Mark. | Copyright status of the Material: The 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (as amended) states that unpublished literary and artistic works remain in copyright in the UK until at least 31 December 2039. Therefore important parts of the library’s collection remain in copyright, including very old manuscripts. However for unpublished material created many centuries ago and in the public domain in most other countries, the Library believes this material to be very unlikely to offend anyone. As an institution whose role it is to support access to knowledge, we have therefore taken the decision to release certain digitised images technically still in copyright in the UK under the Public Domain Mark. | Source | Shakespeare Documented

Shakespeare renting his Blackfriars property to John Robinson

One of the revelations from Chris’ book is about Shakespeare’s London Lodger. This story comes from archival evidence showing Shakespeare purchased property in Blackfriars, London (mortgage document shown above) and then allowed a lodger to rent the space.

Going through the lone books of the Stationer’s Company, I came across a loan to John Robinson. John Robinson we know was the name of the individual who was Shakespeare’s lodger some time after 1613 when Shakespeare purchased the property—Shakespeare purchases Blackfriars Gatehouse, close to the Blackfriars theater, and in that property he places a lodger named John Robinson, and individually a John Robinson signed as a witness to Shakespeare’s will. Now we don’t know if those people are the same individual, but its interesting. We don’t know much about who the lodger was. He could have been a steward of a catholic nobleman in the area, and there’s a longstanding theory Shakespeare bought that Blackfriars Gatehouse to be close to the company’s papers, with a view of assembling his own first folio in his lifetime. Now, what would lend more credence to that theory is if we could find the identity of John Robinson, and if he was associated with the publishing industry. I found this record in the Stationer’s Archive, which is the guild responsible for publishing, made up of publishers and printers, so after some digging, I discovered that this John Robinson I found was indeed a publisher, and what’s interesting is that he graduated from his apprenticeship in 1613, the very year Shakespeare purchased the Blackfriars Gatehouse. When you graduated, you looked for a place to live and work. And it aligns with exactly where Shakespeare buys this property. John Robinson works at Fleur de Luce and Crown, that’s a few minute’s walk only from this Gatehouse. So when he sets up as a professional publisher, we think his first published work was dedicated to a member of the Carey family. [That is significant to Shakespeare history because Henry Carey, from] 1594-1603 he patronized Shakespeare’s company. Nicholas Oakes graduated under Richard Field, fellow Stratfordian, who went to school with Shakespeare, published Venus and Adonis and other poems. While we can’t be 100% sure that this John Robinson, the publisher, that was Shakespeare’s lodger, it is a tantalizing prospect and closest we will get to sensing Shakespeare’s own hand on his own book, on the Folio.

At the Folger Shakespeare Library, they list the following entry as describing the mortgage on the Blackfriars Gatehouse:

“Shakespeare paid £80 of the £140 selling price up front and on the day after the conveyance he mortgaged the remaining £60 back to Walker. Johnson, Jackson and Heminge acted as trustees in Shakespeare’s interest and were in charge of the sale of the property following Shakespeare’s death (See Folger MS Z.c.22 (44)).” (Source)

Poem written inside of Folio 23 by Mary Child, who gifted the First Folio to Elizabeth Brockett. Image description: “To the ladies,” by Mary, Lady Chudleigh; first line: “Wife and servant are the same,” | Autograph of Mary Child; autograph of Elizabeth Brocket, 1695, 1702, 1712; bookplate of William Brocket. | Manuscript additions on front flyleaves and on several pages of the text. Verses “To the ladies,” by Mary, Lady Chudleigh, on 4th front flyleaf verso (1st line: “Wife and servant are the same”). | From the Folger Shakespeare Library | Source

Where the Folio Went After it Was Published in 1623

The First Folio has a somewhat complex history after its publication. Chris outlines a little about what happened to the First Folio once it was printed:

The various copies of the Folio reveal fascinating stories, including things like female reading practices. Folio 23—owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library, is the oldest Folio owned by a woman, going back to 1640, owned by Mary Child. She proudly inscribed in it “Mary Child is the true possessor of this book” This book was handed down between women, being owned by two successive female owners. It does also tell us about female reading practices. Other notable histories relate to England’s relationship to other countries. One Folio in Padua, probably arrived England as part of England’s trading relations bought there by a Venetian consul. It was one of the first folios to begin the journey to go from English to a global book. Only one housed in a non-English city that is also a setting for one of Shakespeare’s plays. (Padua is the setting of Taming of the Shrew) Sydney, South Africa, and the two in the latter two locations arrived at the latter part of the 19th century…The owner of these Folios was Sir George Grey, who was an energetic coloniser. He supported the establishment libraries in South Africa and Auckland, New Zealand, with generous donations of books to both institutions, including a Folio to each. This is where apparent acts of philanthropy can conceal more sinister motives. For Grey the First Folio represented the pinnacle of English culture, and was therefore bound up with his colonial aims, nothing less than the obliteration of the language and culture in New Zealand and South Africa, replacing them with English language and literature. 

1702 Signature of Elizabeth Brockett, inside the 1623 Folio she was gifted by Mary Child. Image from a Folger Shakespeare Library record. Source

I (Cassidy Cash) took this screen capture of the digital record of Elizabeth Brockett’s signature, showing up close the part where she identifies the Folio as “Her Book”; This is a copy of the Folio Chris is talking about in today’s episode. There’s several other images of this Folio available online in the LUNA Database of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Access that record here.

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!