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First Folio! Folger Shakespeare Library FAQs

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The Folger Shakespeare Library asked their docents to share the questions that visitors typically ask about the First Folio. Here they are, with answers supplied.

Q. Is there a painting of Shakespeare?

A. Folger scholars believe there is no authenticated painting of Shakespeare. The two likenesses of Shakespeare that are considered authentic, as they were approved by those who knew him, are the Droeshout engraving in the First Folio and the bust on his grave at Stratford-upon-Avon.

Q. Do any of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts still exist?

A. No one has ever found a manuscript written in Shakespeare’s hand. Once documents were printed, handwritten copies were not considered valuable enough to keep. Many people feel the same way today—once an important document is on the computer, people tend to throw away or recycle handwritten drafts. We know that the pages of many other manuscripts were recycled to make the hard binding (we would call this cardboard today) that was used in creating books. Perhaps one day someone will discover one of Shakespeare’s manuscripts hiding in another book.

Q. Did Shakespeare ever publish his own plays?

A. We don’t think so. Shakespeare did publish his poems and became quite well-known as a poet in his day. As he became more well-known as a playwright, others published his plays, but as far as we know, Shakespeare was never involved, as publishers did not need the author’s permission to publish. This is one of the reasons that the First Folio is often viewed as a more reliable source of Shakespeare’s plays. We know two of Shakespeare’s closest colleagues were involved in the editing of the First Folio.

Q. How long did it take to print the First Folio?

A. Scholars believe the printing started in early 1622, possibly in February. The printer was working on other books at the same time, which likely slowed the printing of the First Folio. The book was completed by the end of 1623. The first recorded purchase of a First Folio was in December 1623 by Sir Edward Dering.

Q. How was the First Folio assembled?

A. The First Folio was printed in “quires.” The quires were three large sheets of paper folded once, creating six pages, each printed on both sides making 12 pages of text. Compositors set each line, one letter and space at a time, to make the pages.

Q. Why is the spelling in the First Folio not consistent?

A. Spelling in general was not consistent in Shakespeare’s time. This is clear in copies of the First Folio. Scholars used spelling variances to identify five compositors who set the type for the First Folio, and each had his own way of spelling. For example, one used “doe” for do and “deare” for dear; while another used “do” for do and “deere” for dear.

Q. Why is every First Folio different?

A. Errors were common in printed material of the day, because type was set by hand, and often by multiple people. When errors were discovered during the printing process, the compositors would fix the type so that future pages were correct, but paper was so expensive, and printing so time consuming that the pages printed with the errors were still used.

Q. Why were plays not considered literature?

A. In Shakespeare’s time, plays were popular entertainment, in the same vein as bear baiting, or how we consider TV programs today. New plays were performed each day to keep the crowds coming to the theater. The plays were intended to be heard, not read. Shakespeare’s company arranged for the printing of the First Folio to preserve his works.

Q. Why does the Folger have so many copies of the First Folio?

A. Every First Folio is different. The Folgers viewed the First Folio as a document for research. Mrs. Folger wrote about the search for what she called the “true text of Shakespeare” in her Master’s thesis. Comparing several copies allows scholars to make informed decisions about what Shakespeare might have actually written. Editors continue to compare copies of the First Folio, along with other folios and quartos.

Q. Why were the Folgers so interested in Shakespeare?

A. Mr. Folger became interested in Shakespeare during college. We know he attended a lecture by Emerson and afterwards read Emerson’s lecture on Shakespeare. According to Mrs. Folger, Mr. Folger thought Shakespeare’s works, along with the Bible, represented the foundation of American thought.

Q. What else can we learn from the First Folio?

A. One thing we can learn from the First Folio is that it was considered an economic venture, not just a way to preserve Shakespeare’s works. In the page entitled “To the Great Variety of Readers,” Heminge and Condell repeatedly encourage readers to BUY the book. It’s a great reminder that bookmaking was a business then, just as it is now.

Q. Our time is so different from Shakespeare’s, so how are his works still relevant today?

A. Shakespeare told stories about love, betrayal, friendships, competition, power battles, and families–all things we still care about today. In fact, even though they tell the stories in different ways, many authors use inspiration from Shakespeare to create their own works. In fact, Shakespeare did that as well. The majority of his plays were not original stories, he adapted popular stories into his plays.

Q. Why is the First Folio still considered so important?

A. The First Folio is the book that gave us Shakespeare. Without it, we would not have plays, words, and phrases that are part of our lives today. It also teaches us about printing and life in the Early Modern period. Mr. Folger considered the First Folio one of the most important books in the English language.

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First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library, has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor and by the support of , Vinton and Sigrid Cerf, the British Council, Stuart and Mimi Rose, and other generous donors.