In the Library at Charlecote… Shakespeare’s Second Folio

We’ve been running some Book Talks in our Library recently and they’ve been very well received. So well received that we’ve decided to run more [we’ll share more information in on those dates in the new year]!

During these talks, visitors have had a chance to talk with our guides about the collection held here at Charlecote; what is in it, why it is so special and how it is cared for. It’s a very special collection with a number of particularly interesting volumes.

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Volunteer guide, Len, tells us more about one of these – the Shakespeare Second Folio (1632)…

Len in the library at Charlecote
What is a Folio?
It tells us how the printer folded his paper. The largest books were the folios made by printing on both sides of the paper and folding the paper just once to produce two leaves with four sides of text. The paper size will vary but be approximately 12” X 15”.

A quarto is where the paper is folded in half and then folded again. This will give four leaves and eight pages approximately 9.5” x 12”.

The next sizes down are octavo (paper-back size), 12mo, 16mo, and 32mo.

What is the importance of a folio?

For Shakespeare it provides not a definitive edition of the plays, which is no longer possible, but a scholarly production that is thought to be as close as possible to the manuscript copies of the plays.

Shakespeare wrote his plays in manuscript and probably never expected to see them in print. The manuscript was handed to the theatre producing the play. The theatre might produce a single printed and bound copy of the play for the prompter who would use it to mark stage directions, actor’s names etc. They would not sell copies of that book.

Unscrupulous publishers might attend a play and attempt to write down what they heard and publish it, or actors who had performed in the plays might publish their own edition. With the proliferation of these it became difficult to know exactly what Shakespeare wrote.

Contrast these two passages from Hamlet’s soliloquy..

2nd folio: “To be, or not to be: that is the question”

Pirated Quarto 1603 pub. Nicholas Ling and John Trundell
“To be or not to be. Aye, there’s the point/To die to sleep, is that all? Aye all.”

The First folio 1623
John Heminge and Henry Condell were concerned about the number of corrupt copies of Shakespeare’s plays in circulation and put together the first folio in 1623.

Only 18 of Shakespeare’s plays had been published prior to their work but the first folio contained 36 plays and was treated as the only authoritative version of the plays. Printing it as a folio gave it status raising it above the quartos.

It was bound with an engraving by Martin Droeshout (a Flemish engraver who had settled in England to avoid the Protestant persecutions).

Around 750 copies were printed and 233 are known to survive of which only 40 are complete. Nearly all are held in libraries with only three having come up at auction in the last decade and reaching millions of dollars. It is one of the most valuable books with estimated prices paid up to £5million.

The second folio 1632

The Second Folio, London, (1632) printed by Tho.Cotes for Robert Allot, in the Library at Charlecote Park

The Second Folio, London, (1632) printed by Tho.Cotes for Robert Allot, in the Library at Charlecote Park

The first folio sold well enough to require a reprint as the second folio in 1632. There are 1700 minor changes from the first folio mainly updating the language.

It does not have the cache of a first folio in spite of the two editions being virtually identical with the only major difference being the printing of an unsigned poem `An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare‘. It is known to be written by John Milton (1608-74), whose Poems published in 1645 gives the date `1630’ to this poem.

The third folio 1663
This had an additional 7 plays although only Pericles is now accepted as being by Shakespeare. Copies of the third folio are rare because much of the stock was destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666).

The fourth folio 1685
This contains the same 43 plays as the Third folio. It was used as the source for subsequent 18th-century editions of Shakespeare.

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There are some interesting publications on the topic of Shakespeare’s folios. One of those Len has recommended is Laura Massey’s The birth, death and rebirth of an English genius: Shakespeare’s first and second folios .

Our folio is in need of specialist conservation work and, thanks to the generous donations from our visitors, we are very pleased that this work will be taking place very soon! Keep an eye on the blog for future updates.


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