To the GREAT VARIETY of READERS: Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare's First Folio


“Devise, wit! Write, pen! For I am for whole volumes in folio.” Armando, Love's Labour's Lost, Act I, Scene 2

On 8 November 1623, Isaac Jaggard, printer, and Edward Blount, bookseller, went to the Stationers Hall in London to register their publication: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, finally completed after two years’ effort. Although perhaps little noticed at the time, we now see this act as a monumental historical moment.

Why commemorate the 400th anniversary of this publication? The 1623 Folio is remarkable for at least three reasons. First, this book created a milestone in English literary history because it put together a collection of Shakespeare’s plays, without which we would not know of roughly half of the plays by England’s most important dramatist—a major act of preservation. Second, this folio stands out in printing history, there being nothing quite like it before: a triumph of skill and perseverance on the part of compositors, pressmen, and financiers. This is the first folio wholly dedicated to professional plays. And, third, for the first time in printing history two actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, gathered the material, secured rights, and watched over the process as a tribute to their colleague and dear friend.

This exhibit spans precursors to the First Folio, the Folios of 1623 and 1632, and successors. Case 1 contains the Ben Jonson Folio of 1616 which he arranged for the publication of his poems and plays; it clearly became a model for the Shakespeare Folio. Also, this case has the folio edition of King James’s works, also of 1616, showing the typical “serious” work worthy of folio format. Case 2 provides fragments of the Shakespeare Folios of 1623 and 1632, a cultural phenomenon in which pieces of the folio were sold separately. Case 3 displays a ground-breaking facsimile of the 1623 First Folio with its iconic Shakespeare portrait. Case 4 presents the Spencer Library copy of the 1632 Second Folio, a page-by-page reprint of the 1623 one. This case also includes William Prynne’s 1632 attack on the presumptuous idea of publishing plays in folio format. Case 5 offers the collected plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher in the Folio of 1679, an obvious successor to the Shakespeare ones.

This special exhibit not only celebrates Shakespeare, but also highlights some of the extensive holdings of the Spencer Research Library, with outstanding collections of unique value and importance to the local, national, and international research communities. The library’s resources are available to the public, and all are welcome to explore. These selections are just one way the library embodies and sustains the teaching and research mission of the University of Kansas.

David M. Bergeron, Professor Emeritus of English

Beth M. Whittaker, Director, Kenneth Spencer Research Library