Fame, Fortune, & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio (2011)

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1922 Punch cartoon exposes England's anxiety at the loss of its treasures to United States businessmen. Folger Digital Image 36271.

Fame, Fortune, & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened June 3, 2011 and closed on September 3, 2011. The exhibition was curated by Anthony James West and Owen Williams.

The first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays is a celebrated volume known as the "First Folio." The First Folio earned its iconic status in part because it contains the plays of an author widely regarded as the world’s greatest playwright and because it is the first edition and sole source for half of those plays. Without the First Folio, we might not have such plays as Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and The Tempest. The Folio has been prized by both scholars and collectors. Scholars studied its text letter-by-letter; collectors drove its sales and increased its price. By the nineteenth century, it was so highly regarded that lists and censuses of copies were compiled; most Folios were rebound and repaired; and facsimile editions were produced for those who could not afford the real thing. As the First Folio gained prestige and copies traded hands through auctions and book dealers, the book spread around the globe. Copies can now be found as far from England as Japan and Australia. Over a third of the world’s copies reside within the walls of the Folger Shakespeare Library, having been collected by Henry Clay Folger between 1893 and 1928.

Although not a particularly rare book compared to other seventeenth century publications, good copies can command millions of dollars at auction; its high value, in turn, has encouraged theft. This article and the exhibition it accompanied explores the colorful history of the First Folio, from its modest beginnings in the seventeenth century to stories of theft and recovery of an idolized book, recounting how it came to mean so much across cultures and continents.

Contents of the exhibition

What Is a First Folio, and Why Is It Important?

Postcard promoting a 1993 Folger Theatre production of The Tempest. Folger Digital Image 7303.

“First Folio” is shorthand for the “First Folio of Shakespeare’s dramatic works.” Quite simply, it refers to the first edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays. It is called a “Folio” because of the large-format size of the book, and Shakespeare was not the first author to have his collected works published in folio format. His contemporaries—poets and playwrights Samuel Daniel (1601), Edmund Spenser (1609), and Ben Jonson (1617)—also had literary folios published. But, setting him apart as the foremost playwright of his day, Shakespeare’s literary “First Folio” charted new ground in being composed entirely of plays. Since its publication in 1623, the book has gained cultural significance, becoming synonymous with Shakespeare himself. Despite the first folios of Jonson and Spenser, the term “First Folio” has taken on the weight of a proper noun, and for many, there is no question that “First Folio” means Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies.

About half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed in the smaller quarto format before his 1623 Folio, but eighteen of the plays collected in the First Folio had not previously been printed, and no known manuscripts of the plays exist. This means that, without the First Folio, those eighteen plays — including standards like Julius Caesar and Macbeth — may have been lost. The First Folio also holds the Droeshout portrait, one of only two portraits unambiguously identified as Shakespeare. This well-known portrait is the iconic image of Shakespeare that appears on the title page of the First Folio.

Listen to Erin Blake discuss the Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare found in the First Folio.

Items included

Stealing the Shakespeare Folio

Shakespeare’s First Folio isn’t terribly rare by antiquarian book standards, so what makes it so valuable? This is a question with many answers. For one, the First Folio is an important primary source for Shakespeare’s plays and the iconic image we recognize as Shakespeare. Its iconic cultural status, along with its infrequent appearance on the book market, make it more valuable than it would otherwise be. The current record sale price was set in October 2000, when a private collector purchased Abel Berland’s copy at Christie’s New York for $6.2 million.

A book this valuable is bound to attract thieves. In fact, three First Folios were stolen in the twentieth century—one from Williams College, Massachusetts in 1940; one from John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester, England in 1972; and one from the University of Durham in 1998. Sadly, only two of these copies have been recovered. The Williams College copy was returned the same year it was stolen, while the Durham copy remained at large for a decade. It was brought into the Folger in 2008 by a man who claimed he was a book dealer who had acquired the volume in Cuba. This image shows one of the identifying details Folger staff and others used to authenticate and identify the book. The documentary Stealing Shakespeare tells the story of the eccentric man at the center of the Durham First Folio case, and of the eventual return of the Folio to its home at Durham University (Call number: Cosin W.2.11 (=S.R.Safe)). Learn more about this copy in their video.

Listen to Steven Galbraith discuss the Durham First Folio case.

Readers, Collectors, and Stars

In the years immediately following its printing, the First Folio was not significantly more important than other literary works of its time, but it quickly gained importance. It was carefully read, altered, and adapted in the seventeenth century—especially in the Folio’s first decade and again at the end of the seventeenth century. Many First Folios have interesting annotations, including some that alter the text and others that mark up plays for performance. The fact that the First Folio was followed by the Second Folio in less than a decade demonstrates how much it was in demand.

This image is from a copy of the First Folio at Kodama Library, Meisei University, in Tokyo, Japan. The marginal notes, dating possibly as early as the 1620s, take up much of the available white space on the page and throughout the volume, giving a sense of the annotator’s close attention to the text. Starting in the early eighteenth century, the editing of Shakespeare became a major industry. Many Shakespeare editors owned a First Folio and used it to create new editions. Because there are no existing manuscripts of the plays, one cannot get nearer to Shakespeare’s original words than what’s printed in the First Folio; for this reason and others, close attention to the original text of the First Folio continues to this day.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Shakespeare’s reputation as a playwright had grown enormously. This was due in part to the efforts of David Garrick (1717–79), the actor, director, and theater manager who produce the famous “Shakespeare Jubilee” of 1769. Shakespeare’s reputation grew alongside a passion for book collecting among the wealthy, and the Shakespeare First Folio quickly became a must-have for collectors.

Items included

Henry and Emily Folger as Collectors

1922 newspaper clipping announcing the purchase of the Burdett-Coutts First Folio. Folger Digital Image 50567.

Henry and Emily Folger collected eighty-two First Folios—one third of the known 235 copies—in a span of just thirty-five years. Both the rate and the quantity of acquisition are unique in the antiquarian book collecting.

As a collector, Henry Folger was a shrewd negotiator. Though he sometimes received hostile responses to his inquiries, he forged ahead, and in the end, he often got the volume he was after. In 1905, Mr. Folger made a bid for the First Folio known as the “Deposit Copy”—the copy sent by printer William Jaggard to the Stationers’ Company in London in accordance with a 1611 law. Not realizing how important the first edition would become, the Bodelian Library had sold the Deposit Copy in the 1660s in favor of the more up-to-date Third Folio. The copy remained in private hands until 1905, when the owner received an offer from a London book dealer on behalf of an unidentified collector. The owner offered the Bodleian the chance to match the £3,000 bid. The Bodleian came up with the funds and the Deposit Copy returned to its original home—a happy ending to the story for all but the “mysterious millionaire” who wanted to buy the copy. That was, of course, Henry Folger.

Mr. Folger conducted much of his business through book dealers, including renowned Philadelphia book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach. Rosenbach was a collector in his own right, and along with London book dealer Bernard Quaritch, he led the market in First Folios. He owned two boats in his lifetime, which he named the First Folio I and the First Folio II.

Rosenbach orchestrated the purchase of one of Henry Folger’s finest copies—the Burdett-Coutts First Folio. Prior to Henry Folger, this Folio belonged to the estate of Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts (1814–1906), (Baroness from 1871). A member of a banker’s family, Burdett-Coutts was the wealthiest unmarried heiress in England before she married her much younger American-born secretary. She purchased this copy (one of two First Folios she owned) in 1864 for a new record price. Her adoration for the volume was clear. In 1866, Burdett-Coutts commissioned a footed casket, carved out of wood from the felled Herne’s Oak. The casket has compartments which at one time housed the First Folio and a copy of the 1640 edition of Shakespeare’s poems, illustrating the extremes to which some owners went to protect and revere their Folios.

For more on the Folgers as collectors, visit the page on the Folger exhibition, A Shared Passion: Henry Clay Folger, Jr. and Emily Jordan Folger as Collectors.

Listen to Betsy Walsh discuss the Folgers and their main focus of their collecting.

Listen to Georgianna Ziegler discuss Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts.

Items included

Continuing Stories of the First Folio

400 years later, and new discoveries are still being made

For a book nearly 400 years old, and one as closely studied as the First Folio, one would think there are no new stories to tell. In fact, Folios continue to trade hands—though infrequently—and discoveries continue to be made. In 2003, Anthony James West published A New Worldwide Census of First Folios, documenting all known copies of the First Folio around the world. Since its publication, more copies have surfaced, bringing the grand total of known Folios to 232 at the time of this exhibition, and to 235 by April 2016. In his Census, West noted that one of the copies at the Folger Shakespeare Library had the manuscript notation “Constanter” on its title page. In 2009, with the help of Dutch scholars Dr. C. J. Verduin and Dr. Ad Leerintveld, and UV photographs of the First Folio’s title page taken by staff in the Folger’s conservation lab, this signature and another manuscript annotation were identified as the ownership marks of Dutch diplomat, poet, and book collector Constantine Huygens.

Huygens was known for signing and dating his books upon purchase. The faded, nearly invisible date “1647” can be seen above the publication details on the title page when viewed in ultra-violet light. Using the UV photography, and with the expertise of Dr. Leerintveld – the world’s leading authority on Huygens’s handwriting – Dr. West determined that Huygens owned this First Folio in 1647, thus making it the earliest known First Folio to leave England.

Listen to Frank Mowery discuss some of the challenges in the conservation of a First Folio.

Items included

Additional items exhibitied

The following items are listed chronologically according to the Hamnet catalog.

  • Miscellany. Manuscript, ca. 1571–ca. 1600. Call number: V.a.159 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London: Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623. Call number: STC 22273 Fo.1 no.57.
  • William Shakespeare. The most excellent and lamentable tragedie, of Romeo and Juliet: as it hath beene sundrie times publikely acted, by the Kings Maiesties Seruants at the Globe. London: for John Smethwicke, [1623?]. Call number: STC 22325a and LUNA Digital Image.
  • William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London: Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623. Call number: STC 22273 Fo.1 no.52 and LUNA Digital Image and Binding image on LUNA.
  • William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London: Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623. Call number: STC 22273 Fo.1 no.42 and Binding image on LUNA.
  • William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London: Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623. Call number: STC 22273 Fo.1 no.11 and LUNA Digital Image and Binding image on LUNA.
  • William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London: Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623. Call number: STC 22273 Fo.1 no.66 and Binding image on LUNA.
  • William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London: Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623. Call number: STC 22273 Fo.1 no.70 and Binding image on LUNA.
  • William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London: Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623. Call number: STC 22273 Fo.1 no.82 and Binding image on LUNA.
  • John Dryden. The tempest, or The enchanted island. A comedy. London: J.M. for Henry Herringman, 1670. Call number: S2944 Copy 2 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • William Cooper. A Catalogue of Books, of the several Libraries Of the Honorable Sir William Coventry, And the Honorable Mr. Henry Coventry, Sometime Secretary of State to King Charles II. London, 1687. Call number: 260649 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Egerton. A catalogue of the genuine library of John Watson Reed, ... Which will be sold by auction by J. Egerton, ... on Monday, March 1st, 1790, ... London, 1790. Call number: Z997.R4 Cage and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Ker, Duke of Roxburghe. A catalogue of the library of the late John, Duke of Roxburghe : arranged by G. and W. Nicol ... which will be sold by auction ... 18th May, 1812, and the forty-one following days, Sundays excepted ... London: W. Bulmer, 1812. Call number: Z997 .R887 1812 Cage.
  • Napoleon Sarony. Edwin Forrest [in Roman costume]. Photographs. New York, 19th century. Call number: ART File F728 no.39 PHOTO (size XS) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • William Jackman. W.E. Burton. Print, stipple vignette. N[ew] Y[ork]: D. Appleton & Co., [mid-19th century?]. Call number: ART File B974.5 no.4 (size XS) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • James Lenox. Shakespeare’s plays, in folio. [New York, 1861]. Call number: Sh.misc. 932.
  • Justin Winsor. [Account of all known copies of early quarto and folio editions of Shakespeare]. [Boston, 1874–1877]. Call number: Z8811 .W789.
  • Shakespeariana. Philadephia: Leonard Scott Pub. Co., 1883–1893. Call number: PR2885 .S7.
  • William Shakespeare. The national Shakespeare: a fac-simile of the text of the first folio of 1623. Illustrated by Sir J. Noël Paton. London; Edinburgh; Dublin: William Mackenzie, [1888–1889]. Call number: Flat PR2754 3h1 Sh.Col., v. 2.
  • Sidney Lee. Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies : a supplement to the reproduction in facsimile of the first folio edition (1623) from the Chatsworth copy in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire, K.G. : containing a census of extant copies with some account of their history and condition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902. Call number: PR2753 .L4 1902s.
  • William Shakespeare. Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies; being a reproduction in facsimile of the first folio edition, 1623, from the Chatsworth copy in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire, K.G.,with introduction and census of copies by Sidney Lee. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902. Call number: PR2753 .L4 1902 copy 3.
  • The four folios of Shakespeare’s plays : an account of the four collected editions together with a census of the known perfect copies of the first folio: a description of an exceptionally desirable set now offered for sale by Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, [1907]. Call number: Sh.misc. 1601.
  • Bernard Partridge. [Autolycus, U.S.A.]. Drawing, pen and ink. England, 1922. Call number: ART Box P275 no.1 (size L) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Shakespeare Association (Great Britain). In commemoration of the First folio tercentenary; a resetting of the preliminary matter of the First folio, with a catalogue of Shakespeariana exhibited in the hall of The worshipful company of stationers, illustrative facsimiles, and introduction by Sir Israel Gollancz... London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1923. Call number: PR2923 1923 .L6.
  • Henry Guppy. A brief summary of the history of the "First-Folio" edition of Shakespeare’s dranas ... Manchester: University Press, 1923. Call number: Sh.misc. 793.
  • R. Crompton Rhodes. Shakespeare’s first folio, a study. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1923. Call number: Z8813 .R47.
  • Robert Metcalf Smith. The Shakespeare folios and the forgeries of Shakespeare’s handwriting in the Lucy Packer Linderman memorial library of Lehigh University, with a list of original folios in American libraries. Bethlehem, Pa., 1927. Call number: Z8813 .S65.
  • Edwin Eliott Willoughby. The printing of the First folio of Shakespeare. [Oxford]: Printed at the Oxford University Press for the Bibliographical Society, 1932. Call number: Bd.w. PR3330 .Z4.
  • Alice Walker. Textual problems of the first folio; Richard III, King Lear, Troilus & Cressida, 2 Henry IV, Hamlet, Othello. Cambridge, [Eng.]: University Press, 1953. Call number: Z8813 .W3.
  • W. W. Greg. The Shakespeare first folio, its bibliographical and textual history. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955. Call number: Z8813 .G73.
  • Charlton Hinman. The printing and proof-reading of the first folio of Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. Call number: 8813 .H4 Copy1 RR.
  • William Shakespeare. The first folio of Shakespeare. Prepared by Charlton Hinman. New York: W.W. Norton, 1968. Call number: Folio PR2753 .H55 1968a Copy 2.
  • James Kirkwood Walton. The quarto copy for the first folio of Shakespeare. Dublin: Dublin University Press; [New York: Humanities Press,] 1971 [i.e. 1973]. Call number: Z8813 .W36.
  • William Shakespeare. The first folio of Shakespeare. Prepared by Charlton Hinman, with a new introduction by Peter W.M. Blayney. 2nd edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Call number: PR2753 .H55 1996 copy2 R.R. and PR2753 .H55 1996 Copy 4 Deck A-Ref.
  • Sotheby & Co. (London, England). William Shakespeare first folio, 1623: the Dr. Williams’s library copy. London: Sotheby & Co., 2006. Call number: Z8813 .S67 2006.

Supplemental materials

First Folio Diaspora Map

The Shakespeare First Folio was published in 1623. It is thought that up to 750 copies were printed; 233 are extant today. Many have made their way from their London birthplace to various locations around the globe. Explore this interactive map to trace the movement of First Folios around the world.


Curator Anthony West discusses why this historic book is still relevant today.

Watch scholars discuss the allure of the First Folio.

Related programs

Permanent displays

One First Folio of Shakespeare—accompanied by a touchscreen display of its contents—is always available to view at the Folger.

Talks and Screenings at the Folger

  • Collecting the Book that Breaks the Rules: Shakespeare’s First Folio at Auction, June 23, 2011
  • To Catch a Thief: Recovering the Durham First Folio, July 7, 2011

After this exhibition, in 2015, another Shakespeare First Folio was discovered on the shelves of a public library near Calais—the last English stronghold in the country. The tally of First Folios has been updated in the article above to account for this additional discovery which brings the total number of extant books to 233.

For additional information, please read one of the following articles from the New York Times, The Guardian, or The Telegraph.