Arts & Tradition

Celebrating Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio’

BY Andrew Benson Brown TIMEMarch 6, 2023 PRINT

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the initial publication of William Shakespeare’s collected plays, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, an independent charity devoted to studying and promoting the Bard’s life and work has announced a special exhibition to honor the occasion: “The Great Variety of Readers: Celebrating 400 Years of Shakespeare’s First Folio.”

An original copy of “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies”—or, as it is more succinctly known, the “First Folio”—will be displayed at the site of the Bard’s family home in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is the ideal location to display the First Folio, since Shakespeare presumably retired from the noise of London to write some of his later plays there over a period of nearly 20 years.

Shakespeare’s final residence, New Place, a brick and timber mansion was demolished in the 18th century, but visitors are free to walk through a recreation of Shakespeare’s gardens. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has spent years excavating the site of New Place to provide archaeological authenticity about how he lived and worked. The gardens trace the original lines of the former house and contain sculptures and quotations from the plays and sonnets.

While the First Folio celebration may be the best reason to visit Stratford-upon-Avon in 2023, it is not the only reason. Practically the entire town has been turned into a museum devoted to its most famous son. Ticket buyers will also gain access to Nash’s House, an adjacent building where Shakespeare’s grandson-in-law lived, as well as the playwright’s birthplace, which is still standing.

First Folio
The title page of the “First Folio” of William Shakespeare’s plays. (Public Domain)

The Ashburnham Folio

When Shakespeare died in 1616, about half of his plays remained unpublished in book form. If it had not been for two of his friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, plays like “Macbeth,” “Twelfth Night,” and “Antony and Cleopatra” would probably have been lost forever.

Heminges and Condell painstakingly pored over Shakespeare’s original notes and other source materials to assemble definitive versions of 36 of his plays. The collection, which excludes “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen” (two works co-authored with other playwrights), was brought out in 1623.

It was Heminges and Condell who organized his plays into comedies, histories, and tragedies—a division Shakespeare himself never made (some of the tragedies, for example, feature historical characters, while some of the histories are tragic).

The copy of the First Folio on display at New Place is known as the Ashburnham Folio, named after the fourth Earl of Ashburnham. The Earl purchased the book in 1836 for 52 pounds and 10 shillings (the equivalent of 2,500 pounds, or over $3,000 today), owning it until 1889. It is one of about 230 surviving First Folio copies that have come down to us.

First Folio
A page of the original copy of Shakespeare’s “First Folio.” (Public Domain)

Today, the Ashburnham Folio is the most valuable of the 55,000 books owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. In its original bound state, however, it would have been sold for one pound (around $200 today). In 1623, that would be enough to purchase 44 loaves of bread.

Since mistakes and corrections were frequently made during printing, every Folio copy is distinctive. None of the surviving versions have come down with all their pages intact. Almost all, including the Ashburnham copy, lack the original title page with the famous Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare (one of two proven portraits that was posthumously drawn from the memory of people who knew him).

Another thing that makes the Ashburnham Folio unique is that its pages were “washed” sometime in the 19th century (though not by the Earl). This process involved taking the book apart and cleaning its pages by submerging them in water. As a result, the copy lacks inscriptions from previous owners, most of whom are unknown. The Ashburnham Folio has since been rebound, and specialists have restored the missing pages with facsimiles.

The exhibition’s name, “The Great Variety of Readers,” is taken from an introductory message Heminges and Condell included at the beginning of the Folio, which begins: “From the most able, to him that can but spell: There you are number’d. We had rather you were weighed.”

First Folio
Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. (gary718/Shutterstock)

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust will be displaying two other items during the exhibition as well. The first is a seal ring that is thought to have been worn by the great man himself, engraved with the initials “W.S.”  The other item is a small notebook from the 17th century written by an anonymous Shakespeare enthusiast. It is the earliest known evidence of a student studying the Bard’s work and contains notes on the plays.

The exhibition begins March 25 and goes through Nov. 5.

Andrew Benson Brown is a Missouri-based poet, journalist, and writing coach. He is an editor at Bard Owl Publishing and Communications and the author of “Legends of Liberty,” an epic poem about the American Revolution. For more information, visit
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