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Shakespeare Folios

One of the most influential book ever published in the English language.

What's in the collection

The four Shakespeare Folios  are some of the most significant volumes in the Library. These large printed volumes, published in the 17th century, are the earliest published editions of William Shakespeare’s complete plays.

About the Four Folios

Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, histories & tragedies, published according to the true originall copies, also known as The First Folio, was published in 1623.  It was produced only eight years after Shakespeare’s death on 23 April 1616. Apart from the bible, this volume is now considered the most influential book ever published in the English language.

In the early 17th century, drama did not have a high literary value. Plays were written for the stage and generally remained the property of the theatre company. It is rare to see a volume of plays listed in any large library of the period. Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, considered them as “ baggage books….some plaies may be worthy of keeping: but hardly one in fortie..”.

The First Folio was printed in London, near St Paul’s Cathedral. Of the 36 plays included in the Folio,  18 had never been published. It was a large and ambitious publication which involved at least eight compositors to prepare the copy. The main financial burden was born by the printers, William and Isaac Jaggard. The Jaggards also negotiated the complex copyright issues and registered the plays with the Stationers’ Guild in London. The exact print run for the First Folio is unknown although estimates are around 750. It was sold for just one pound in a plain calf binding. 

The Library’s copy of the First Folio was donated in 1885 by two brothers from Birmingham. Richard and George Tangye purchased the volume for 850 pounds in 1884. This is the only known copy of the First Folio held in Australia.

The Second Folio was published 9 years later in 1632. It had an additional poem in praise of Shakespeare by John Milton. The Library’s copy of the Second Folio was donated by the Australian Shakespearian actress, Essie Jenyns around 1920. She received the copy from a group of admirers while she was performing in Hobart in 1887.

In 1664 a Third Folio was published. This edition included seven additional plays including Pericles, The Puritan Widow, The History of Thomas Cromwell and The London Prodigall of which only Pericles is now accepted as genuinely Shakespearian. The Third Folio is extremely rare as a large number of copies were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.  The Library’s copy was purchased by the Library Trustees in 1964.

A Fourth Folio was printed in 1685 with improved typography and layout, making the edition more readable. The Library received the Fourth Folio as part of the David Scott Mitchell bequest.

The First Folio has been fully digitised and is available through the Library catalogue.