Three Musings on Early Shakespearean Printing

Guest blogger William Poole writes…

I visited the conservators working on the First Folio out at Osney Mead with a small group of interested observers. How fascinating to see this work as it is actually being carried out!

The visit set me thinking about a few different issues concerning the study of early printed Shakespeare and its reception.


The First Folio of 1623 is a justly celebrated book. But it may help us if we look at the Folio not as a lone bibliographical pioneer, the first folio-format book to contain solely plays in English, but as the culmination of a series of London experiments in folio literary publishing.

An excellent means of doing this has been provided by a sometime curator at the Folger Library, Steven K. Galbraith, in his essay ‘English Literary Folios 1593-1623: studying shifts in format’, in John N. King, ed., Tudor Books and Readers (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), chapter 3.

Galbraith is interested in trying to unpick what he terms “firstfoliocentricity”. In order to do this, he proposed a rough taxonomy of literary folios into three types. First there are ‘folios of economy’ (where paper is actually saved by printing in folio rather than any smaller format); then there are ‘folios of luxury’ (where attractiveness supersedes thrift); and finally there are ‘folios of necessity’ (where the amount of text to be set is so great that folio is the only one-volume option).

Now Shakespeare’s First Folio might actually be seen as the fifth in a series of experiments in literary folio publication stretching from the late Elizabethan to the late Jacobean periods. To summarize Galbraith: first came Sir Philip Sidney’s posthumous Arcadia … with Sundry New Additions (1598). This is an economical folio, where the jump from quarto to folio actually made better business sense. Next is Samuel Daniel’s The Works of Samuel Daniel (1601) – note the title, so Ben Jonson was not the first writer to use this grand appellation for such a venture – another example of a text ‘promoting’ from quarto to folio. And this, as Galbraith observes, is a folio of luxury. Third, Spenser’s posthumous Works (1611) is a folio of economy and necessity, as it is both very frugal in its use of paper and large enough in terms of material for folio format to be the only practicable means of publication – so some categories of folio can be combined. Ben Jonson’s Workes (1616) is probably the most famous of all these pre-Shakespearean literary folios, but we can see now that Jonson’s folio too is the culmination of a late Elizabethan tradition; and it is a folio of luxury, replete with ‘paratextual’ embellishments of some sophistication and cost.

Finally, there is Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623). This, Galbraith shows, is clearly a folio of necessity and of economy. It contains thirty-six plays, a number far in excess of any previous literary folio containing plays. Folio was the only choice here, unless it was to be sold as a set of quarto volumes, not at all the impression its publishers wished to give. It is economically printed, with as little wasted space as possible – if a play ends on a recto, for instance, the next one starts on the verso. So when we talk about “luxury” folios we should perhaps think carefully before immediately applying that label to Shakespeare’s First Folio, as if “luxury” and “folio” are inseparable terms. Not, of course, that this was in any sense a cheap book to buy – rather the reverse. But purely in terms of the economics and even the aesthetics of printing, it is not the foremost example of a luxury literary folio – that title is best shared by Daniel’s and Jonson’s folios.


Bodleian Library lost its First Folio in the Restoration – it will have been sold among one of the many duplicate sales the Bodleian commenced in the 1660s. By the time of the librarian Hudson, indeed, what is now the Upper Reading Room contained tables of Bodleian duplicates on sale to academic tourists – there will be many books in libraries around the world with Bodleian shelfmarks that were purchased at such sales. The First Folio was sold on the second-hand market to an unknown buyer, and at that point it ceased to be in institutional hands until repurchased by the library. It is not annotated, as Bodleian readers (and it must be remembered that only graduates were permitted to read in the library in this period) were banned from annotating books, as they still are. But the book shows significant signs of wear, and it is likely that most of this wear reflects the attentions of readers in the first four decades of its existence, as a highly popular literary work will receive much more attention in a library frequented by in theory many hundreds of readers than it will at the hands of a sole owner.

This does raise an interesting question unrelated to the history of the Bodleian’s First Folio, but crucial to the understanding of the reading of the Folio in the Bodleian, and I have not encountered any discussion of this aspect of the history of that text in Oxford. For when the Bodleian sold its First Folio, it did so because it had acquired a subsequent edition – and this edition will have shouldered all the attentions formerly lavished upon its parent. Therefore, one interesting possibility for future research on the Bodleian’s Shakespeare collection would be to examine second, third, and fourth folios of known early provenance, and to ask them the questions about readership and use we usually reserve for the more famous, but long absent, First Folio. We might start with the Folios in the “Arch” series and ascertain which of them have secure early provenances. The Bodleian copy of the Second Folio (1632) is at Arch. G c.9; the copy of the Third Folio (1664) is at Arch. G c.11; and the Fourth Folio (1685) is at Arch. G c.13.

And we should not forget that there are at least a dozen copies of the second, third, and fourth folios in college libraries too. Perhaps some kind of “show-and-tell” folio party should be organized?


Something of the popularity of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays as printed texts, in both early and more recent editions, in Restoration Oxford, can be gleaned from an extraordinary list amongst the papers of Anthony Wood. Here one will find details on many Shakespeare texts for sale, including a folio, I think the fourth if I remember correctly – Wood itemizes its contents too. This is Wood’s 1684 extensive list of plays for sale in Oxford from the shop of Nicholas Coxe, Manciple of St Edmund Hall. (Coxe or Cox, incidentally, also sold manuscripts of plays, and had published on the Oxford press in 1680 a pioneering catalogue of all plays published to that date.) This wonderful document, now part of MS Wood E 4, and listing hundreds of plays, is excellent evidence of literary taste in Oxford in the 1680s in playtexts. It is fascinating to note the presence in this list not only of very early as well as very recent editions of Shakespeare quartos, but also the problems of attribution facing the reader of playtexts, who by the 1680s was confronted with many texts attributed to Shakespeare that are clearly not by him.

William Poole
Fellow in English and Fellow Librarian
New College, University of Oxford

Conservation Diary — Day 4

Nicole Gilroy writes…

Today we finished straightening turned-over areas of text in the Histories, and will start on the Tragedies tomorrow. As we work through the volume we have been noting the areas that need splint repairs, and once we have been through the entire volume tomorrow we will review the repairs needed and make sure there is time to complete them all. We have also noted several features of interest that will not be clearly recorded by the digitization, such as tears that appear to have occurred during the papermaking process and which we will photograph if time allows.

Nicole and Arthur examine a tear

Nicole Gilroy and Arthur Green examine a tear, which turns out to be a flaw that occurred during the making of the paper rather than damage that has happened during handling of the book. This kind of information will be hard to examine on the flat, digitized images, and so we are recording it as much as possible during our treatment.

We had more visitors today, and the fascinating conversations continue – we discussed the separation of the plays into Comedies, Tragedies and Histories and when this distinction would have come about, and also discussed the other copies of the First Folio, particularly those in Oxford (at Queen’s and Wadham Colleges) and what level of use, repair and rebinding they display.