The First Folio: How We Almost Lost "Macbeth"

February 8, 2016

first folio

The First Folio of Shakespeare is a unique literary treasure.  Collected, edited, and published in 1623 by Shakespeare’s close friends and fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell, the nearly 1,000-page book collects 36 of the Bard’s plays – 18 of which had never before appeared in print.  Without the First Folio, Shakespearean masterpieces such as Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, and Taming of the Shrew would have been lost forever.  On Sunday, February 14th at 3 pm, Helen Page – Professor Emerita of English at Oakton Community College – and Joseph Page – actor with the Muse of Fire Theater Company – will visit EPL to explore this great book’s fascinating history as part of #DiscoverWill: Illinois Libraries Celebrate Shakespeare’s First Folio.  In anticipation of their lecture “The First Folio: How We Almost Lost Macbeth,” we recently spoke with the Pages via email about the technical definition of a “folio,” Shakespeare’s creative process, the literary significance of the 1623 First Folio, and the “Anti-Shakespeare” movement.

Evanston Public Library:  What is a “folio?”  Why is this such a big deal?

Helen Page & Joseph Page:  The term “folio” comes from the Latin word for “leaf.”  It describes a particular way of arranging sheets of paper into a book.  A full-sized sheet of paper is folded only once, producing two leaves.  Each leaf is printed on both sides, creating four pages of text.  Shakespeare’s First Folio is made up of 454 leaves, or 909 pages.  Other book formats included the “quarto” in which a sheet was folded a second time, producing four leaves and eight pages per sheet, and the “octavo” where the sheet was folded yet again, producing eight leaves and 16 pages per sheet.

Lyn Page
Helen Page
Joe Page
Joseph Page

Folios are generally large books.  The 1623 First Folio, for example, measures 8 ½ by 13 3/8 inches.  Such books were expensive to produce and purchase, so the folio format was reserved for “significant” works such as the Bible or classical philosophy.  (The Gutenberg Bible, for example, is printed as a folio.)  It was very unusual in Shakespeare’s time for works by poets and playwrights to be printed in this form – or for that matter, to be printed at all.  So, part of the “big deal” about the folio was that publication of plays was a rather new idea.

In the Elizabethan era, scripts for plays were merely tools used by actors and production companies to put together a live stage production.  It was the performance that mattered – and it was the performance that earned money.  The play was written to be seen in performance, not read.  However, by the 1590s, Shakespeare’s growing popularity led to the publication of small quarto editions of some of his poetry and plays.  Eighteen plays, sonnets and some poetry were published and sold in quarto editions during his lifetime.  Shakespeare’s other plays, like many in that era, were never published as individual works.

The First Folio of Shakespeare first folio was put together seven years after his death by two surviving members of his theater company as a memorial to their friend and colleague.  They wanted to honor his memory and preserve the works he created that had been so popular during his lifetime.  The real “big deal” of this is the fact that this carefully assembled collection includes eighteen plays that had never been published before and probably never would have seen the light of day but for this collection.  Without the 1623 First Folio, we would have no Twelfth Night, no Julius Caesar.  There would be no Taming of the Shrew, Winter’s Tale, Tempest, Macbeth — and many more.  It would be as if these incredible triumphs of English literature had never existed.

Joseph Fiennes in “Shakespeare in Love”

EPL:  In the movie Shakespeare in Love, we see Will furiously writing and re-writing, tearing up pages, and showing up with new material at every rehearsal.  How accurate is this?  How did Shakespeare’s plays actually get published and sold?  What was his relationship with his publishers?

HP & JP:  The image of Will “furiously writing and re-writing” accurately conveys the pace at which everyone involved with an Elizabethan theater company, especially Will Shakespeare, had to work.  Theater records from the 1590s show us that an active company might produce sixteen to eighteen different plays in one month.  Every actor in the company had to memorize many different roles simultaneously to prepare for a rigorous production schedule that offered many different shows, alternating performances from day to day to keep audiences coming back.  While these actors were performing one set of shows, they would also be rehearsing other, newer works. (One wonders where they found the time!)

As any modern actor will tell you, new ideas are often “discovered” in the rehearsal process.  Shakespeare, who was an actor and producer as well as a playwright, no doubt saw opportunities for improving his work when a new play was “put on its feet” in rehearsal.  (Knowing what we know about the actors in his company, we can imagine that his fellow thespians offered him occasional suggestions as well!)  It’s reasonable to assume, therefore, that revisions and “fine tuning” of the scripts went on right up to, and probably beyond, the premier of each new show.

Shakespeare was a partial owner of his plays, and a partial shareholder in the theater companies to which he had sold the plays in order to have them produced.  His primary goal, therefore, was to create scripts for live performances.  That was where the “real money” was to be made.  He was apparently not very interested in the publication of his plays.  Sometimes approved quarto editions of a play were published after a pirated version appeared.  These approved quartos served two purposes: they counteracted the pirate’s financial gain from stealing the work, and they also preserved the author’s integrity by correcting the often badly mangled text found in the unauthorized quartos.


EPL: The theory that “Shakespeare” was not really written by Shakespeare keeps popping up.  Does the First Folio help put that rumor to rest in any way?

HP & JP:  Relatively little is known about the life of William Shakespeare.  No manuscripts of his plays or poems are available.  In fact, the only known words we have in his handwriting are three surviving signatures on legal documents.  This paucity of information has done a lot to feed authorship theories about Shakespeare’s plays.

However, some basic facts should be considered: Heminge and Condell were close personal friends and business associates of William Shakespeare.  He left them money to buy “mourning rings” for him, and the London theater community knew and respected William Shakespeare.  All of this strongly suggests that he wrote the plays that bore his name – and presents the doubters with the formidable challenge of explaining why the publishers of the First Folio would go to such great lengths to perpetrate a fraud whose major beneficiary had been dead for seven years.

The “Anti-Shakespeare” movement got its start in the late 19th century by an American writer of plays and short stories named Delia Salter Bacon.  The crux of the argument is that a man of such humble, common origins could not possibly have written works with such profound insight as is found in the plays.  They must have been written, so the argument goes, by men from aristocratic society who were well-travelled and had university educations.  Among the candidates suggested by Delia Bacon and others were Edmund Spenser, Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, and Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Prior to the 19th century, no one had ever questioned Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays and poetry.  While speculation on this topic occasionally stirs some public interest, most contemporary scholars dismiss it as unfounded.


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