You Never Forget Your First Folio: How William Shakespeare Invented Books

Posted on December 27, 2023

by Eric P

William Shakespeare is credited with innovating or popularizing a lot of things: modern theatre, the role of the playwright, the English language, blank verse, multitasking, receding hairlines, rocking a doublet and knee-length breeches. He invented the words “puking” and “swagger” and the name “Jessica.” And it turns out there’s one more thing Shakespeare more or less created, albeit accidentally and posthumously: book culture. Thou art welcome, BookTok!

Before Shakespeare’s plays became must-see events for nobility and the groundlings alike, publications of play scripts for public purchase were infrequent and bargain-priced endeavors: the print quality was low, the accuracy was spotty, and nobody was expected to display them on their coffee tables to impress visitors. That all changed exactly four hundred years ago with the publication of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, now more commonly called the First Folio.

Coming just seven years after Shakespeare’s death and collecting 38 of his plays – including eighteen that had never before been printed – the folio was a sturdy 900-page tome that tipped the scales at five pounds; upon publication, a bound edition would have cost you one pound sterling, or the equivalent of about two hundred bucks today. That sum, about one-quarter of an average laborer’s annual salary, could have bought you forty loaves of bread back then, so this was not a casual purchase for regular folk. People with the means snapped them up, though, and a couple hundred survive today. If you’d bought one back in 1623 for a pound, you could resell it today for ten million bucks. Which is a tidy profit, but you’d also be pretty old by now so you might just spend it all on compression socks and Metamucil.

This was status-buying as a two-way street: the prestige folio format conferred literary legitimacy on the otherwise sketchy practice of playwriting, while the expensive volume of handsomely bound plays announced the affluence and taste of its owner. Win-win. And while the experiment must have seemed like a gamble at the time, it turned into maybe the most successful and influential project in publishing history. It made Shakespeare an enduring household name and it established book-buying as an exercise in status, identity, and self-expression – and we can draw a direct line from that development to BookTokers proudly displaying their Sarah J. Maas hardbacks and pundits painstakingly curating the bookshelves in the backgrounds of their televised Zoom interviews.

The library has dozens of copies of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as some digital versions of the First Folio. But if you’d rather read about the iconic book itself – and the people who did some wild things to get their hands on a copy – we’ve got you covered there too.

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