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The First Folio

First Folio 1623; Catalogue Page
First Folio 1623; Catalogue Page

“Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies” was published in folioA folio is a book made by folding large sheets of paper once, creating two leaves or four pages. format in London and entered into the Stationers' Register on November 8, 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death. Folio format was usually reserved for scholarly and theological texts, so this was an unusual and expensive endeavor.

Thirty-six of Shakespeare's plays are included in what is now called the First Folio (three more editions were eventually printed). Eighteen of those plays had never appeared in print before and might have been lost forever. Shakespeare's friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, are primarily responsible for saving almost all of Shakespeare's works in the First Folio. (See Publication Chronology for quartoA quarto is a book made by folding large sheets of paper twice, creating four leaves or eight pages and octavoAn octavo is a book made by folding large sheets of paper three times, creating eight leaves or sixteen pages editions that were printed prior to the First Folio, and for the approximate order in which the plays were written and published).

The Contents

Shakespeare's plays are categorized in the First Folio by Heminge and Condell as comedies, histories and tragedies. We do not know how Shakespeare might have labeled them. In addition to the 35 plays listed on the Catalog page, Troilus and Cressida, which is not listed, is also included in the First Folio between the histories and the tragedies. Rights to publish that play may have been acquired after the Catalogue page was printed. Two additional plays that do not appear in the First Folio, Pericles Prince of Tyre and The Two Noble Kinsmen, are now considered to have been written at least in part by Shakespeare. Edward III has recently gained acceptance among some scholars as being written at least in part by Shakespeare as well. It first appeared in an anonymous quarto edition in 1596, but there is no evidence that it was ever performed by Shakespeare's company. Two other plays, Cardenio and Love's Labors Won, are mentioned in documents during or shortly after Shakespeare's life as having been written by him, but they have never been found. In addition to these, as many as 80 other plays, loosely called the Shakespeare Apocrypha, have been questionably attributed to Shakespeare but with no consensus among scholars. For more on genre in Shakespeare, see Plays by Year & Genre.

The Numbers

Scholars believe that 700-800 First Folios were printed. Of those, 235 are known to still exist. Occasionally, new copies are found, some as recently as 2016. More than a third (82) of the extant copies are housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Another 12 are held at Meisei University in Tokyo. Many others are located in university and public libraries and public and private museums in the United States, Great Britain and a few other countries.

Works in the Order They Appear in the First Folio

The First Folio listed the comedies first, histories second and tragedies third. Within each genre the plays are listed neither in alphabetical order nor the order in which they were written. The histories, however, are listed in the chronological order of their stories (see Shakespeare's English Histories). The three genre are paginated so that they could have been bound as individual volumes.

The table below replicates the order, spelling and page numbers as they appear in the Catalogue of the First Folio. It also indicates which plays were later labeled as problem plays and romances, and which had not been previously published.

Bold — Works that had not been printed prior to the First Folio
(Ro) —  Romances
(Pr) —  Problem Plays