Imagine owning a Shakespeare First Folio

It would have been a splendid investment had your ancestors chosen to acquire a copy.

| 6 min read

If you had a rich and canny ancestor who had popped into a bookshop in St Paul’s Churchyard in November 1623 – four hundred years ago – they could have bought a new work of exceptional literature, the first compendium of Shakespeare’s plays.

A bound copy of The Bard’s First Folio cost £1 at the time, not an insignificant sum at that time. According to the Bank of England’s long-term inflation numbers, this translates to the equivalent of £202.41 today. If your ancestor had handed their purchase down as a family heirloom it could sold for many millions of pounds today. The top price reported to have been paid for such a First Folio was $9.9 m including fees. This is clearly an exceptional financial return, but the words contained within would also have provided pleasure to numerous readers over the last four centuries.

A collection of outstanding literature

Two actors – John Heminge and Henry Condell – who worked with Shakespeare, took on the role of posthumous publishers. This edition contained 36 plays, with 18 of them published for the first time and the remaining 18 plays appearing in small quarto editions in earlier years. Both actors wished to keep the memory of their old companion and writer alive. In the process, they touched themselves with some of the immortality that Shakespeare’s genius brought. The men stressed to their potential buyers that they were publishing the true texts, arguing that some of the quarto single plays had been printed with incomplete or inaccurate versions. They set out their stall robustly, conscious that an expensive print run needed good promotion to sell the copies.

“It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been wished, that the Author himself had liv'd to have set forth, and overseen his own writings; but since it hath been ordained otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envy his Friends, the office of their care, and pain, to have collected and published them; and so to have publish'd them, as where (before) you were abus'd with diverse stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters, that expos'd them: even those, and now offer'd to your view cur'd, and perfect of their limbs; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceived the[m]. Who, as he was a happy imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers. ... Read him, therefore; and again, and again: and if you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him."

Only one dramatist, Ben Johnson, had published their own plays in an omnibus publication before.

The print run for the book was 750 copies and each one had to be hand-printed and assembled and carefully bound. The estimated cost per copy for good quality paper and the printers’ work was 6 shillings and 8 pence (33p), making a total investment of £250 to print and produce them all. This required a group of investors for the scheme and represented a substantial financial risk. If we multiply the cost by the Bank’s inflation factor, these two men put at risk the equivalent of £50,000 today to sell 750 books at a modern £202.4 each or £150,000 of turnover. The Earl of Pembroke and the Earl of Montgomery were amongst the financial backers of the project. Some argue if you do a comparison based on wages, then the modern equivalent of these sums would be higher than suggested by inflation data.

Only one dramatist, Ben Johnson, had published their own plays in an omnibus publication before. Large, expensive Folio editions were reserved for important works of theology or history or classical studies, whilst plays were seen as ephemeral with the script usually reserved for the players in a few working copies. The copyright for Shakespeare’s plays originally rested with the King’s Men company of players, an organisation in which Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son had been a shareholder. By 1623, seven years after his death, the titles to various plays had been sold to other individuals who needed to consent to the reprinting of the Folio.

An anniversary well worth celebrating

This November, Stratford-upon-Avon, the wider nation and many around the world will celebrate the publication of this seminal work of English literature. There are only around 235 remaining copies of the original 750 that are believed to have survived. In many cases, these are prized treasures in museums and libraries around the globe. The interest in the First Folio is due to its record of an extraordinary literary achievement, which remains relevant and popular to theatre and film audiences today.

The First Folios also proved to be an astute investment for those museums who bought them soonest. The image of Shakespeare, drawn by Martin Droeshout, looks out from the title page and gives us the best-known image of the Bard. It was presumably approved by the two actor-publishers who supervised the edition, perhaps striving for some friendly realism in the image created to honour their friend.

It would probably surprise and delight Shakespeare to see how much interest there still is in his work. This is only possible thanks to the publishers who saved his plays. He would also be thrilled to see what modern technology can do to make putting on plays easier and more dramatic.

Shakespeare’s imagination allowed Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream to encompass the globe in an astonishing forty minutes. How he would be amazed that we can now transmit a play around the world in seconds thanks to the digital highways that are like modern electronic girdles binding the globe. The Globe Theatre itself is a well-named reminder of Shakespeare’s greatness, rebuilt as it is, on the site of many of his theatrical achievements.

(The information for this article came from the Shakespeare Birthplace website, reproductions of the First Folio, the costings from a website summary of Eric Rasmussen’s book Shakespeare’s First Folio and the inflation adjustment records from the Bank of England.)

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

Imagine owning a Shakespeare First Folio

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