Printed in folio format and containing 36 plays (see list of Shakespeare's plays), it was prepared by Shakespeare's colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell in 1623, about seven years after Shakespeare's death. Although eighteen of Shakespeare's plays had been published in quarto prior to 1623, the First Folio is the only reliable text for about twenty of the plays, and a valuable source text even for many of those previously published. The Folio includes all of the plays generally accepted to be Shakespeare's, with the exception of Pericles, Prince of Tyre and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the two "lost plays," Cardenio and Love's Labour's Won. It also omits his poems.
The First Folio's publishing syndicate also included two stationers who owned the rights to some of the individual plays that had been previously printed: William Aspley (Much Ado About Nothing and Henry IV, Part 2) and John Smethwick (Love's Labor's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet). Smethwick had been a business partner of another Jaggard, William's brother John.
The actual printing of the Folio was likely done between April and October 1621, and then, after a break for other work, from the autumn of 1622 to autumn in the following year. The book was on sale by the end of 1623; the Bodleian Library, in Oxford, received its copy in early 1624 (which it subsequently sold for £24 as a superseded edition when the Third Folio became available in 1664).
[Some definitions are needed. The term "foul papers" refers to Shakespeare's working drafts of a play; when completed, a transcript or "fair copy" of the foul papers would be prepared, by the author or by a scribe. Such a manuscript would have to be heavily annotated with accurate and detailed stage directions and all the other data needed for performance, and then could serve as a "prompt-book," to be used by the prompter to guide a performance of the play. Any of these manuscripts, in any combination, could be used as a source for a printed text. On rare occasions a printed text might be annotated for use as a prompt-book; this may have been the case with A Midsummer Night's Dream.]
Troilus and Cressida was originally intended to follow Romeo and Juliet, but the typesetting was stopped, probably due to a conflict over the rights to the play; it was later inserted as the first of the Tragedies, when the rights question was resolved. It does not appear in the table of contents.
Compositor "E" was most likely one John Leason, whose apprenticeship contract dated only from November 4, 1622. One of the other four might have been a John Shakespeare, of Warwickshire, who apprenticed with Jaggard in 1610-17. ("Shakespeare" was a common name in Warwickshire in that era; John was no known relation to the playwright.)
Some pages of the First Folio — 134 out of the total of 900 — were proofread and corrected while the job of printing the book was ongoing. As a result, the Folio differs from modern books in that individual copies vary considerably in their typographical errors. There were about 500 corrections made to the Folio in this way. These corrections by the typesetters, however, consisted only of simple typos, clear mistakes in their own work; the evidence suggests that they almost never referred back to their manuscript sources, let alone tried to resolve any problems in those sources. The well-known cruxes in the First Folio texts were beyond the typesetters' capacity to correct.
The Folio was typeset and bound in "sixes" — 3 sheets of paper, taken together, were folded into a booklet-like quire or gathering of 6 leaves, 12 pages. Once printed, the "sixes" were assembled and bound together to make the book. The sheets were printed in 2-page forms, meaning that pages 1 and 12 of the first quire were printed simultaneously on one side of one sheet of paper (which became the "outer" side); then pages 2 and 11 were printed on the other side of the same sheet (the "inner" side). The same was done with pages 3 and 10, and 4 and 9, on the second sheet, and pages 5 and 8, and 6 and 7, on the third. Then the first quire could be assembled with its pages in the correct order. The next quire was printed by the same method: pages 13 and 24 on one side of one sheet, etc. This meant that the text being printed had to be "cast off" — the compositors had to plan before-hand how much text would fit onto each page. If the compositors were setting type from manuscripts (perhaps messy, revised and corrected manuscripts), their calculations would frequently be off by greater or lesser amounts, resulting in the need to expand or compress. A line of verse could be printed as two; or verse could be printed as prose to save space, or lines and passages could even be omitted (a disturbing prospect for those who prize Shakespeare's works).
Some Shakespeare directors, and theatre companies producing Shakespeare, believe that modern editions of Shakespeare's plays, which are heavily edited and changed to be more readable, remove possible actor cues in the Folio, such as capitalization, different punctuation and even the changing or removal of whole words. Among the theater companies that have based their production approach upon use of the First Folio was the Riverside Shakespeare Company, which, in the early 1980s, began a studied approach to their stage productions relying upon the First Folio as their textual guide. This technique was first revealed to Riverside's actors and directors by Patrick Tucker, formerly of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who based his approach to Shakespeare production entirely upon the First Folio. It has been documented that Tucker's workshops for actors, director and teachers in New York in the early 1980s, which were hosted for the first time in New York by the Riverside Shakespeare Company at The Shakespeare Center on Manhattan's Upper Westside, led to a sustained interest in the First Folio, soon thereafter leading to the reissue of Shakespeare's First Folio in a popular, paper back format more accessible to the general public.
Today, many if not most theatre companies and festival producing the works of Shakespeare use the First Folio as the basis for their theatrical productions and training programs, including London's Original Shakespeare Company (founded and lead by Patrick Tucker) - a theatre company which works exclusively from cue scripts drawn from the First Folio.
However, the First Folio does not contain every word of the plays. For instance, small passages of Hamlet are omitted — among them Horatio's line "A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye", and his subsequent speech beginning with "In the most high and palmy state of Rome, / A little ere the mightiest Julius fell..." Also missing is Hamlet's encounter with the Danish captain in Act IV, Scene IV, along with perhaps the most important cut, the soliloquy "How all occasions do inform against me".
Today, the First Folio — despite its variant forms and occasional inconsistencies — has widely become known as the "actor's Bible" when it comes to the works of Shakespeare, the most produced playwright of our age.
It is believed that around 1,000 copies of the First Folio were printed. The most recent census (1995-2000) records 228 still in existence, including five copies held by the British Library. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. holds the world's largest collection with 79 copies.
It is one of the most valuable printed books: a copy sold at Christie's in New York in October 2001 made $6.16m hammer price (then £3.73m).
On 13 July 2006, a complete copy of the First Folio owned by Dr Williams's Library was auctioned at Sotheby's auction house. The book, which was in its original 17th century binding, sold for £2.5 million hammer price, less than Sotheby's top estimate of £3.5 million. This copy is one of only about 40 remaining complete copies (most of the existing copies are incomplete); only one other copy of the book remains in private ownership.
On 11 July 2008 it was reported that a copy stolen from Durham University, England in 1998 had been recovered after being submitted for valuation at Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., in the United States. The folio's value was estimated at upto £15 million.