4 Things You Should Know About Shakespeare’s First Folio
Yale’s David Scott Kastan provides context at Drew.
October 2016 – Today, William Shakespeare’s First Folio is considered a hugely significant book—but it just as easily could never have been published.
That was one of the surprising nuggets from a Drew University talk by David Scott Kastan, a professor of English at Yale and author of three books on Shakespeare.
Kastan spoke during Drew’s month-long exhibit of the First Folio on campus. His talk, Stayin’ Alive: Shakespeare and the First Folio, was among four featuring Shakespearian scholars. The others were delivered by Drew’s own Kimberly Rhodes, Jonathan Rose and Frank Occhiogrosso. Here are the four biggest takeaways from Kastan’s talk.
Without the First Folio, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays may have been lost.
The First Folio grouped Shakespeare’s plays—for the first time—into comedies, histories and tragedies and featured a portrait of Shakespeare that’s now accepted as an authentic image of him. But what makes the Folio truly precious? It preserved 18 plays that had never been printed before, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, As You Like It and Henry VIII.
Early Americans didn’t know of, or care about, the First Folio.
We line up to gaze at a copy of the First Folio now, but in 18th-century America, not so much. Although many Americans read Shakespeare then—including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—they favored “user-friendly” contemporary editions, according to Kastan. In fact, there’s no record of a First Folio existing in the U.S. until 1791, when one cropped up in Boston. Early Americans “thought, in every case, that those new editions of 18th century editors were the best,” Kastan explained.
The First Folio was almost never printed.
Compiling 36 of Shakespeare’s plays and publishing them in a folio wasn’t the Bard’s idea at all. Rather, it was the masterstroke of friends John Heminge and Henry Condell, seven years after his death. Most likely, though, they had a hard time finding a publisher, given the significant upfront costs of printing the book, according to Kastan. The professor further noted that the First Folio was initially expected to be published in 1622 but didn’t arrive until a year later because it took time to acquire the rights to some plays and the book “wasn’t always the highest priority in the printing house.”
The book is historically significant but not rare.
Today, some 234 copies are known to exist worldwide, 82 of which are in the Folger Library alone. “Many early books survived in only one or two copies,” Kastan noted. “But the Shakespeare Folio exists in a lot of libraries.” According to Kastan, there were probably no more than 800 first editions printed, which means roughly a third survive today.