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First page of The Tempest

Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1968.
Call Number: (SPL)(SHAK) PR 2751 .A15 1968
Special Collections, Golda Meir Library

William Shakespeare, John Heminge, and Henry Condell were shareholders in the theatrical company known as the Lord Chamberlain's (later the King's) Men. To "keep the memory of so worthy a Friend and Fellow alive," Heminge and Condell collected and published Shakespeare's plays in a prestigious folio edition. Disclaiming any profit motive on one page of the First Folio' (F1's) preliminary material, on the very next they urge the reader to buy, buy, buy. But given that their labors established the basic canon and preserved many plays never before published, they merited whatever rewards the Folio brought them.

The importance of this and subsequent folio editions cannot be overestimated. Their production codified the works considered part of the authentic Shakespeare canon and established the dramatic structure, spelling, and language of the texts. By moving Shakespeare's works from a principally dramatic to a printed format, the Folios introduced a range of questions on which debate continues and set the course for contemporary and future Shakespeare production, editing, and scholarship.

First lines of Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' from the Norton Facsimile

The First Folio's printer, Isaac Jaggard, must have produced a substantial number of copies for many survive today, though few are in private hands. An updated census (1902/1990) shows that the Folger library owns 79 F1s, the British Library 5, and Meisei University in Japan 9 copies. The University of Texas owes its F1 to H. Ross Perot, who loaned UT $15,000,000 to buy the Pforzheimer collection intact. Perot charged no interest and even led the fund-raising campaign to pay himself back.

In 1790, the Duke of Roxburghe brought gasps when his agent bid--and got--a First Folio for £35, then a record high price. In 1985, Sotheby's auctioned a First Folio for $580,000. What a copy would bring today is anyone's guess.

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©2001 University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee -- All Rights Reserved.
Prepared by Christopher Barth, Virginia Haas, and Sarah McDaniel