First Folio

Throughout much of the Renaissance, plays did not occupy the same high cultural status that we attribute to them today. In fact, theatrical texts were not viewed as “literature” at all.  When a play was published (if it was published at all) it was printed inexpensively in a small book, called a “quarto,” the sixteenth-century equivalent of our paperbacks. It was not until 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, when a contemporary English poet and dramatist, Ben Jonson, published his own plays in a large-format book called a “folio”—the format traditionally reserved for the authoritative texts of religious and classical works—with the intention of challenging this pervasive understanding of theatrical texts as holding low literary value, that plays began to be understood as literature worthy of publication. Interestingly, Jonson was still chided as bold and arrogant for his venture for many years.  

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, only half of his plays were ever published, and those were printed as quartos. He did, however, oversee the publication of three narrative poems and a collection of 154 sonnets. It was not until seven years after the playwright’s death that two of his close colleagues decided to gather his plays for publication in a move of three-fold significance: as gesture of homage to a long-time friend and colleague, as a promotion of the King’s Men as a theater company of the highest cultural prestige, and as a financial venture with lucrative potential.

In 1623, what is now known as the First Folio, a book containing thirty-six of Shakespeare’s estimated thirty-eight plays, was published. Modern textual scholars maintain that the First Folio was likely compiled from a combination of stage prompt books and other theatrical documents, the playwright’s handwritten manuscripts (no longer extant), and various versions of some of the plays already published. Shakespeare’s First Folio took five compositors two and one-half years to print. The compositors manually set each individual letter of type, memorizing the text line by line to increase efficiency, as they moved down the page. There was no editor overseeing the printing, and the compositors frequently altered punctuation and spelling. Errors caught in printing would be corrected, but due to the high cost of paper, earlier copies remained intact. Of the 1,200 copies of the First Folio that were printed, approximately 230 survive today, and each is slightly different. Chicago’s Newberry Library contains an original First Folio in its rich collections.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater often utilizes the First Folio as the basis for its play scripts. The First Folio still serves as a manual for Shakespearean actors nearly 400 years after its publication because the plays as printed in the First Folio took theatrical documents as their basis for printing.  Its punctuation, capitalizations, variant spellings, line breaks, and rhetorical structures all give clues to actors and directors about what words to emphasize and about what ideas are important—helping them to break down and examine the language. In Shakespeare’s own theater company, with only a few days to rehearse each new play, these built-in clues were essential and provided information for members of the entire company. Today, these language clues still help modern actors make the language easier to break apart, for example—even though they’re speaking language that’s 400 years “younger” than ours.

A key to understanding Shakespeare’s language is to appreciate the attitude toward speech accepted by him and his contemporaries. Speech was traditionally and piously regarded as God’s final and consummate gift to man. Speech was thus to Elizabethans a source of enormous power for good or ill… Hence the struggle to excel in eloquent utterance.


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