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...”
In 1622, two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, decided to publish a collection of his plays as a memorial and testimony to Shakespeare’s work. They gathered together both fair and “foule” copies of Shakespeare’s plays, selecting the version which they felt was true to Shakespeare’s intent. Troilus and Cressida proved the most difficult and reached the printers so late that it was too late to be included in the printed contents page. Of the 36 plays included in the First Folio collection 18 had never been published. It is possible that without this publication plays such as the Tempest, Twelfth Night, Antony & Cleopatra and Macbeth would have been lost. Heminges and Condell also decided the divisions between comedies, histories and tragedies.
The famous portrait on the title page was also commissioned by Heminges and Condell from a Flemish engraver, Martin Droeshout, and presumably was based on a portrait or sketch which as not survived.
The First Folio was printed in London, near St Paul’s Cathedral. It was a large and ambitious undertaking which took almost two years, requiring at least 5 compositors to prepare the copy. The main financial burden was born by the printers, William and Isaac Jaggard, who also had to undertake the complex task of negotiating copyright and registering the plays with the Stationers’ Guild in London. It was a busy printing house with other books in production while the folio was being printed. This often led to curious spellings and type-setting as the printers ran short of particular letters. The exact print run for the First Folio is unknown although estimates are around 750 with 234 known copies remaining today. It was sold for just one pound in a plain calf binding, and 15 shillings unbound.
The Library’s copy of the First Folio was donated to the Sydney Free Public Library in February 1885 by Richard and George Tangye who purchased the volume for £850 in 1884. As the auction records no longer exist we have no information on previous owners. When the Folio arrived in Australia it was housed in a carved oak casket which is now on display in the Shakespeare Room. According to newspaper reports from 1885, the casket was made from oak grown in the historic forest of Arden, which featured in Shakespeare's play As You Like It.
Richard Tangye was a Cornish engineer and manufacturer. The Birmingham engineering firm formed by the Tangye brothers grew to become one of the largest suppliers of jacks, pumps, steam and oil engines, hydraulic presses, gas producers and machine tools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Richard travelled extensively for his business including a number of trips to Australia where branches were established in Sydney and Melbourne. One of the firm’s great engineering achievements was the use of their hydraulic jacks in placing Cleopatra's Needle (weighing over 186 tons) the Thames Embankment in September 1878.
The Library’s copy of the First Folio is the only known copy held in Australia. The Library also holds the three later editions published in the 1600s.
The Second Folio was published 9 years later in 1632. It was almost an exact reprint of the First Folio with the addition of a 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 in 1922. 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. The contents was the same as the Third Folio however the typography and layout of the text was improved making the edition more readable.
The Library received the Fourth Folio as part of the David Scott Mitchell bequest and the volume carries his bookplate.