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In the year 1623, close to a decade after William Shakespeare died, the First Folio was published, which is a collection of some of Shakespeare’s plays selected by his friends and a group of business investors involved in the project. What makes it a Folio, as opposed to simply a book, is the way in which it is physically bound. Here today to help us explore the materials used in making the Folio, including details about the paper used and the intricate binding, along with how the plays were chosen that were included in the final publication, and what ultimately happened to the copies that were printed, is our guest and Head of the Printed Heritage Collections at the British Library, Adrian Edwards.  

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Adrian Edwards is an expert in the printing materials of Shakespeare’s lifetime, as well as those used for the printing of the First Folio. Adrian manages the Printed Heritage Collections curatorial team, which is responsible for Western printed books, periodicals, prints, drawings and ephemera from the mid-15th century through to the year 2000. He has worked at the Library for over 25 years in a variety of roles ranging from cataloguing early Italian books through to managing reference services in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. He joins us today to share about the First Folio as the British Library prepares to release a beautiful slipcovered replica of the First Folio in honor on the 400th anniversary of the Folio’s publication.  

I’ll be asking Adrian Edwards about:

  • We know that there are several of Shakespeare’s plays, like Love’s Labours Won, Edward III, and Two Noble Kinsmen, which are not in the Folio. Why aren’t these plays included as well?
  • What was the process for physically making the First Folio? Was it just one printer who handled production?
  • What materials were the First Folios made from, and how were they originally bound? Or were they?
  • …and more!

British LIbrary bl.uk, enter “first Folio” come to various pages, discovering literature resources essays and short texts abotu the first folio and context.  

Folger Shakespeare Library, largest collection of Folio and Folio fragments anywhere.  

For Books:  

New Discoveries About Making the First Folio

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..


” Devise, wit; write, pen; for I am for whole volumes in folio..”

— Don Adriano de Armado, Love’s Labour’s Lost (I.2)

Inside the First Folio, portrait of William Shakespeare on the right and Ben Jonson’s poem to the reader on the left. Image from The British Library, Public Domain. Source

First Folio Contents

Title Page of Two Noble Kinsmen, 1634 Folio. Public Domain. Source

We know that there are several of Shakespeare’s plays, like Love’s Labours Won, Edward III, and Two Noble Kinsmen, which are not in the Folio. Adrian explains a few reasons why the plays that are missing were omitted:

The consensus among academics that come to the British Library is that [the plays missing from the Folio] were collaborations and that the Heminges and Condell, the two King’s Men acting troupe members behind choosing plays to include, wanted to focus on plays Shakespeare had crafted without collaboration.

Pericles was a collaboration with George Wilkins, while Two Noble Kinsmen was a collaboration with John Fletcher. Cardenio, as well, was a collaboration with John Fletcher. Edward III has only a small part written by Shakespeare, and the play, Sir Thomas More, while there’s a great speech in that play written by Shakespeare, that speech seems to be the only section Shakespeare was a part of helping to write, so it’s far from considered “written by” Shakespeare. These differences help explain why Heminges and Condell might not have included them in the Folio, which was focused on honoring the works Shakespeare has written himself.

Timon of Athens was also a collaboration, with Middleton. That one, however, is included in the Folio, so the conclusion that the plays omitted were done so because they were collaborations is not straightforward. Other plays might have had difficulties getting the rights to publish them. Troilus and Cressida, for example, was intended to be included, before being taken off the list of plays to include (that’s why we don’t see it on the Table of Contents) but then at the last minute, was included after all, because it does show up in the final Folio collection. There’s no evidence surviving that indicates why those decisions were made. Our guest, Chris Laoutaris, in his recent episode with us about the First Folio, discusses his research into some of the logistics of getting the plays collected which suggests the legal wrangles might have caused more than a few headaches.

Reconstructed image of Old Saint Paul’s, the way it would have looked before 1561, with the tall spire. That spire was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Image: Francis Bond (1852-1918) Anton van den Wyngaerde (1525-1571 W.H. Prior, Typographic Etching Co – Francis Bond | Public Domain | Source

Who Printed the First Folio

1520 Printing Press, Public Domain, Source

The text itself was produced by William And Issac Jaggard, who had a print shop in London called the “Half Eagle and Key.” It was located at the corner of Aldersgate and the Barbican.

“The team were licensed to run two printing presses side by side, assume they would have used both, and a requisite number of people to work on them (6-8 people, with apprentices),

The men in charge of the printing were William Jaggard and his son, Issac. William was quite old by this time, he actually dies before the book is printed officially. At the time the printing was being done, William Jaggard is documented as suffering from syphilis, leaving his eyesight poorly and nearly blind. Most scholars conclude form that evidence that it must have been William’s son, Isaac, who managed the heavy lifting for this printing project.

In the shop itself would have been the Jaggards, along with 6-8 apprentices who would have been hired to oversee the production. The text itself was printed on two printing presses, with the exception of the Title Page portrait.

The portrait would have been completed not only on an entirely different machine, but in a completely different workshop. The engraving was a copperplate engraving, so it is published using a very different technique than what’s applied for the letters in the text.

It is most likely that the text would have been printed first by the Jaggards in their shop, then the sheets of printed paper would have been transported to the workshop of Martin Droeshout, who completed the Folio portrait of Shakespeare. Droeshout would have then printed the image onto the empty spaces the Jaggards would have left on the pages. One piece of evidence that lends credence to that supposed order is that a few of the Droeshout engravings are changed. Some engravings have more shadow, more engravings, and adjustments to the portrait itself. That suggests that Droeshout was adding the image after the text was already there because the portrait varies while the text does not. There are 4 surviving versions of the title page portrait and one is at the British Library.


“Pray now, buy some: I love a ballad in print o’
life, for then we are sure they are true.”

— Mopsa, Winter’s Tale (IV.4)

Materials Used to Make the First Folio

Traditional Book Binder placing a binding on a book. Image by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. | Source

The primary material that was used to make the Folio was paper. Adrian explains that the paper used for Shakespeare’s First Folio was expensive linen paper from France. In order to print the 750 copies of the First Folio required over 190,000 sheets of linen rag paper.

The Nuremberg paper mill, the building at the lower right corner, in 1493. Due to noise and smell, paper mills were required to be erected outside the city perimeter. | Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff | Public Domain | Source

To bind the First Folio you had options depending on what you wanted for binding. Unlike books today, the consumer generally took the loose leaf sheets of paper and hired a book binder to bind the pages together according to the customer’s preference, as well as to have the option to affix an ownership seal in the form of a coat of arms or other identifying mark that made the book match the others in a customer’s library collection. Adrian explains that whenever you bought a published book, you had 3 options for the state in which your book would be purchased:

  1. Loose Leaf Sheets – large sheets of paper, unfolded, unbound, completely loose
  2. Ready Sewn Blocks–where the sheets are folded and sewn together, but missing a proper binding
  3. Ready Bound Book–one that looks like a book we purchase today, with the pages folded properly, sewn together, and already bound.  


Adrian explains that for the First Folio, most copies would have been sold the second way, in ready-sewn copies. You could have bought one in the bookseller stalls located next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, or directly from the printer.

An example of how elaborate custom binding could be can be seen in this example of the Ars Chemica, an alchemical manual bound in Strasbourg by Samuel Emmel, 1566. The cover bears the date 1568. | Image by Science History Institute | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. | Source
Bookbinder’s Typeholder: A metal box like compartment set on the end of a short wooden handle. Used for holding separate type sufficient to make up a few words. There is a thumb-screw for holding letters securely in the box. Initials J P on handle. | Photo by Edinburgh City of Print | Source

Five Folios at The British Library

There are five Folios located at the British Library in London. Inside those copies, all 5 Folios contain the 36 plays that were selected to be included in the original Folio, and all of them are complete. The differences between the Folios is found inside what Adrian calls “the preliminaries,” which refers to the starter material located at the front of the Folio–the portrait, the title page, and the list of actors, etc. The original Folio contained 9 preliminary items, and each of the First Folios at the British Library vary in how many of these nine preliminaries remain.   

1.       King George III.

2.       Revd Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode.

3.       Thomas Grenville.

4.       Charles Burney.

5.       Clifford-Phelps family.

The facsimile that is bring produced by The British Library for the 400th anniversary of the First Folio’s initial printing is based off of the Clifford Phelps copy, which is considered to be closest to the original in contents.

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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!