Shakespeare’s First Folio at 400: Discover the Library’s Six Copies in the Polonsky Exhibition

By Laurie Beckoff, Digital Editor/Producer
April 19, 2023
Detail of frontispiece of Shakespeare's portfolio showing an engraving of the author in 17th-century dress. Above it reads: Published according to the true original copies.

In honor of the 400th anniversary of its publication this year, all six of the Library’s copies of William Shakespeare’s First Folio will be displayed in the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures from April 22 through October 1, 2023. One copy has already been on view since the exhibition opened in September 2021 and is featured in the audio guide with commentary from Shakespeare scholar Professor James Shapiro (Columbia University). It is joined by five more copies of this historic book, which contains 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. Alongside the First Folios will be an early 17th-century etching of London that depicts the venues where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, including the Globe Theatre and the Rose Theatre, and the places where these books were first printed and sold. These additions to the Polonsky Exhibition arrive just in time for Shakespeare Day, observed on April 23, the date on which Shakespeare died in 1616 and is also thought to have been born in 1564.

The First Folio is regarded by many as the most important book in the history of English literature. Formally titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, this first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays was compiled by John Heminge and Henry Condell, the playwright’s fellow actors and friends who were also shareholders in the Globe Theatre. They likely used earlier editions of individual plays, various versions of production scripts, and Shakespeare’s own working drafts to faithfully reproduce the texts as they were performed. The compilers’ efforts preserved 18 plays—including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest—that might otherwise have been lost forever. 

The Folios contain points of interest beyond the texts of the plays themselves. The frontispiece features the now iconic portrait of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout the Younger accompanied by a poem by Shakespeare’s contemporary and sometime rival, Ben Jonson. There is also a list of the 26 actors who performed the plays in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) theatre company, including Shakespeare himself and Richard Burbage, who originated many of the leading tragic roles. The table of contents shows how the plays were categorized by genre for the first time, although Troilus and Cressida is absent from that page despite its inclusion in most copies, possibly indicating protracted negotiations to include it.

It is believed that between 700 and 750 copies of the First Folio were printed in 1623. They were printed on high-quality paper usually reserved for Bibles, making the First Folio an expensive and ostentatious enterprise. Only 235 copies remain, and each one is unique as a result of the printing process. Errors were discovered and corrections made, leading to interruptions, alterations, irregularities, and inconsistencies. Among the Library’s Folios are copies from the founding collections donated by William Astor, James Lenox, and Samuel J. Tilden that each have their own small differences, such as an extra title page in a Lenox copy.

These remarkable books will be on display through October 1. Plan your visit to see the Library’s First Folios along with over 200 other treasures from the Library’s collections in the Polonsky Exhibition. Take a closer look with our digital guide on the Bloomberg Connects app.

Summaries provided via NYPL’s catalog, which draws from multiple sources. Click through to each book’s title for more