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Senate House Library

Shakespeare’s First Folios: a 400-year journey

Shakespeare’s First Folio (SHL)

21 November 2023 to 29 February 2024 

Monday to Friday 9am - 7pm and Saturday 9.45am - 5pm 

Free entry

On 8 November 1623, a book was entered into the register of the Stationers’ Company of London: 

Master Blounte, Isaak Jaggard. Entered for their copie … Master William Shakspeers Comedyes, Histories & Tragedyes 

This marked the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio– the first for several reasons. It was the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the first time that 18of those plays were published, and the first time they were categorised as comedies, histories and tragedies. The folio format – a large book where the paper sheets used in its printing are folded only once – was prestigious and unprecedented for a volume dedicated to plays.  

The collection and publishing of the plays in the First Folio was organised by John Heminge and Henry Condell of the Kings’ Men, the acting company that Shakespeare belonged to and wrote for. 

They brought together 36 of Shakespeare’s plays from various printed and manuscript sources. One of their aims was to produce authoritative versions, to replace earlier copies they described as ‘stol’n and surreptitious ... maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors’. These unauthorised editions had been published in the smaller quarto format in the past. 

A syndicate of publishers was formed to underwrite the publication of the First Folio and ensure that the rights to all the plays were held together. It was printed in the shop of William Jaggard and his son Isaac, starting in 1622. The Folio was on sale by the end of 1623 for an estimated 15 shillings for an unbound copy, unaffordable to most ordinary people at the time. 

The First Folio is one of the most valuable and intently examined in the world and an icon of English literature. It ensured the survival of Shakespeare’s plays and over the last 400 years it has been duplicated, republished and collected in many ways. Senate House Library’s exhibition explores the history of this iconic book through its reproductions as facsimiles, how the text was repackaged and republished and how the book became prized by collectors, including Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence and Sir Louis Sterling, whose First Folios are now treasures of the Library’s collections.

See the First Folio

One of the Library’s two First Folio will be on display from 10 am to 6 pm on selected dates through the exhibition:  

  • 20, 21, 23, 27 November 
  • 13 December
  • 17, 31 January
  • 8, 22, 28 February

Shakespeare's First Folio at 400 

The School of Advanced Study is running an exciting series of events and publications to celebrate the First Folios anniversary. Find out more. 

First Folios Digitised

To mark the First Folio’s 400th anniversary, both of Senate House Library’s copies have been digitised for the first time, explore the First Folios from the Sterling Library and Durning-Lawrence Library. 

Exhibition Credits

Curation: Tansy Barton, Lucy Evans 

Conservation: Salvador Alcántara-Peláez, Christos Fotelis 

Interpretation: Susan Dymond 

Design: Northover&Brown 

Videography: Laurie Garnons Williams 

Mount-making: Rebecca Ash 

Graphic production: Displayways 

Fabrication: Scena 

With special thanks to the Institute of English Studies, University of London