First Folios at the Folger
The following article provides brief information about the book at the heart of the Folger collection. For more extensive information, please visit the Folger homepage.
What is the First Folio?
Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. It is more commonly referred to as the First Folio because it was the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays and was printed in folio format. John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors, compiled 36 of his plays, hoping to preserve them for future generations. Many of Shakespeare's plays, which were written to be performed, were not published during his lifetime. Without the First Folio, we would not have 18 of the plays, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, The Comedy of Errors, and As You Like It. All 18 appear for the first time in print in the First Folio and would otherwise have been lost.
How many First Folios does the Folger own?
The Folger Shakespeare Library holds 82 copies of the First Folio, by far the largest collection in the world and more than a third of the 235 known copies in the world today (this number includes three that came to light after publication of Eric Rasmussen and Anthony James West, eds., The Shakespeare First Folios, A Descriptive Catalogue, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012: West 233, Bibliothèque d'Agglomération de Saint-Omer, France; West 234, auctioned at Christie's, London, 25 May 2016; West 235, Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute.) Researchers believe that about 750 copies were originally printed.
How are the Folger's First Folios numbered?
The short answer is "it's complicated."
The longer answer is that Henry Folger numbered the first 66 copies based on a combination of value, condition and completeness. Subsequent ones were numbered (sort of) in the order they were acquired.
Steve Galbraith, our former Curator of Books (and now at the Rochester Institute of Technology) wrote up a post for The Collation (our research blog) on this very subject, which explains it far more clearly.