2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the printing of the first ever collected works of the playwright William Shakespeare: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies, also known as the 1623 First Folio, or simply “the Folio.” In honor of this significant milestone, let’s take a look at how the Folio came to be, as well as how (and why) we still use it today.

Printing a Play

Publishing the Folio was a remarkable undertaking — an expensive feat of cross-industry collaboration. Though plays were frequently published in various printed formats throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime, including his own, Shakespeare had little (if anything) to do with it. He was a man of the theatre, who produced plays for the stage as a member of a company that paid him for his work. That company therefore owned that work, and could decide whether (and when) it might increase profits to sell that work to a printer — not that the printers always waited for permission. Though printers were technically required to license plays by entering the titles into a central master account record called the Stationer’s Register before printing them, theoretically requiring them to deal with the playhouse managers as well as other printers to secure exclusive rights to any particular title, they did not always follow their own industry’s rules. Always on the hunt for new material, printers had plenty of incentives to rush titles to market without necessarily following proper procedure, and might rather go to print with “stolen and surreptitious copies” not authorized by anyone (let alone the playwright) than wait (or pay) for approval and miss an opportunity to capitalize on novelty. So we know for certain that by the time Shakespeare’s words appear printed on any sort of page, they’ve not only long left his hands but also passed through countless others.

Of the thirty-six plays that appear in the Folio, eighteen had already appeared in cheaper, single-edition publications called Quartos by 1623. Different publishers printed them in multiple variant copies, some licensed through the Stationer’s register, others not so much. Quarto copies always differ from their Folio counterparts in at least some ways, since print features like spelling and punctuation were not yet standardized, but sometimes those differences are minor (e.g. Much Ado About Nothing) and sometimes they are major enough that scholars can (and do) argue over whether they’re even the same play (e.g. King Lear). Theories accounting for these differences abound, but none have enough evidence to be universally accepted. For now, we must be content simply to have the texts that we have.

It takes a village to print an early modern book, and it took at least two actors and five printers to arrange the printing of the Folio. Outside of the considerable labor of obtaining copies and licensing rights for the thirty-six plays, there’s also the mechanical feat of actually printing them. Printing presses were large, violent machines that required multiple people to operate. The compositors who worked in the printing houses set their type upside down and backwards onto small “compositing sticks” a line at a time, to be set into forms and printed in relief. One sheet of paper contained multiple printed “pages” of the final book, and how many pages depended on the number of times the paper would be folded after printing; that number depended on the size of the final book. Fold a sheet once, you get a larger four-page Folio layout. Fold a sheet twice, you get a smaller eight-page Quarto layout. The simplest version of the Folio format would print pages 1 and 4 on side A of a sheet, and then print pages 2 and 3 on the other side – fold the sheet in half, and you have a book with four sequential pages. In order to print this way, compositors need to know exactly how much text appears on each page, so when they set the type on pages 1 and 4, whatever text they’ve omitted between those pages is enough to fill up pages 2 and 3. It’s a complicated, collaborative process, and everybody involved invariably made mistakes.

Printing the 1623 Folio

Shakespeare’s friends and fellow company members John Heminges and Henry Condell, who spearheaded the whole Folio initiative and served as general editors for the project, certainly helped with obtaining and licensing the plays that appear in the Folio — but the actual mechanical printing required professional printers. William Jaggard began the printing process for the Folio in his London shop, but died before it was done; his son Isaac took over his shop (and the printing of the Folio) with assistance from Edward Blount, John Smethwicke, and William Aspley. Notice how none of the people involved are named “Shakespeare” – the playwright was never involved in the printing of his plays, and had in fact been dead for seven years by the time the Folio went to print.

Folio Introduction – Heminges and Condell

Heminges and Condell certainly marketed the Folio as the One True Text containing The Plays As Shakespeare Intended Them. Their introduction claims that any previously printed (quarto) versions of the plays were “stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters” while the versions printed in the Folio were “offered to your view cured and perfect of their limbs.” Since the Folio also included eighteen titles that had never before been published, the introduction also boasts that it includes “all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them.” Of course, Heminges and Condell had every reason to lie about the very expensive book they were trying to sell (the introduction also tells readers, flat out, multiple times, to “buy”) and no evidence survives to back up their claim to the Folio’s authorial supremacy. In the absence of any surviving manuscripts in Shakespeare’s hand, however, the Folio is as good a place to start as any — especially for the plays that appear for the first time within its pages.

The cast of ASC’s 2023 THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.

Performing with the 1623 Folio – examples from The Taming of the Shrew

This is all well and good for scholars and nerds to know about, but why should anybody else care? At the American Shakespeare Center, our primary interest is in how these plays work on the stage, not on the page. Of course, we also know the two are inextricably linked, and deep investigation of the page often yields rewards on the stage. To celebrate the Folio’s 400th anniversary, we used the Folio as the “base text” when creating the scripts for all of this year’s shows, editing them as lightly as possible before distributing them to production teams.

Light editing is still editing. As every editor knows, the pen is mighty; in benign attempts at standardization or clarity, editors often end up making interpretive choices on the part of the reader, director, and actor. How, for example, would you punctuate this line for The Taming of the Shrew?


The context: ingenue lovers Bianca and Lucentio are discussing their “studies” (he is disguised as a tutor named Cambio so he can woo her in secret). Before this line, Lucentio asks Bianca “Now Mistress, profit you in what you read?” so this line is ostensibly a response to that question.

Two (of many, many) options:

  1. What, master, read you? First, resolve me that. Bianca calls Lucentio her master and asks him to tell her what he is reading before she will tell him whether she “profits” in what she is reading.
  2. What master read you? First, resolve me that. Bianca asks Lucentio to tell her which “master” wrote the book he is reading before she will tell him whether she “profits” in what she is reading.

We could punctuate this line lots of other ways, too (where should the word “first” go?) but for now, we’re only focusing on the function of the word “master.” Most editions choose one of these two options, even though leaving the Folio’s punctuation as-is would not be grammatically incorrect but may feel detrimentally vague to anyone used to following a standardized system of punctuation. Intentional or otherwise, an edited script containing either option is making an interpretive choice about Bianca’s intent. I did this editing-from-the-Folio work for ASC’s Summer 2023 production script of Shrew, and tied myself in knots over making that choice on behalf of the actor who would play Bianca. Ultimately, I left the line with the Folio’s vague punctuation untouched, and offered Option 2 to actor Corrie Green in rehearsal by saying, “You don’t have to call Lucentio your master if you don’t want to.” She didn’t want to, and thus we all arrived at Option 2 together.

Nic Sanchez and Corrie Green in ASC’s 2023 TAMING OF THE SHREW

The Taming of the Shrew is a particularly interesting play to perform from the Folio, because it contains scenes, stage directions, and other moments that have baffled different editors in different ways over the centuries, and their various solutions have occasionally aggregated into performance traditions with no basis in the Folio. ASC Co-Founder Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen’s excellent article on the subject, “Looking for Cousin Ferdinand”, details his experience first staging Shrew in the Blackfriars Playhouse using the Folio as performance text and discovering how the stage clarifies so many of the page’s issues. To illustrate how the Folio impacts performance today, I’d like to look at how one of those moments functions in our 2023 production.

The scene: Act 2, Scene 1. Kate and Petruchio have just met for the first time, and after a skirmish of wit, Petruchio concludes with the following speech:

SHREW – 2.1 Folio

Notice that halfway through the speech, we see a stage direction: Enter Baptista, Gremio, Tranio. Baptista is Kate’s father; Gremio and Tranio (disguised as Lucentio) are rival suitors for the hand of Kate’s sister, Bianca. Despite their reappearance, Petruchio keeps talking for another five lines, and does not acknowledge them verbally until he says “Here comes your father” three lines after they enter. Beginning with Alexander Pope in 1725, editors began to prioritize the “embedded stage direction” of Petruchio’s acknowledgement over the explicit stage direction set in the Folio text and move Baptista et al.’s entrance down so that it either follows Petruchio’s speech or (beginning with Capell in 1783) so that it follows Petruchio’s acknowledgement.

In paying close attention to the text of the Petruchio’s speech, Cohen found the language shifts significantly right where the Folio places the stage direction, and perhaps the lines that follow that shift are Petruchio performing for the benefit of Baptista and the other suitors rather than continuing to speak directly to Kate:

Such a reading, based on the [Folio] placement of the stage direction, has profound implications for the play. First, it strongly suggests the gamester in Petruchio by showing him in and out of his verbal disguise. Second, it throws into sharp contrast the theme of his undisguised and private voice (the deal is made, I will marry you, we are a good match, you are beautiful, I like you) with the theme of his disguised and public voice (I am your tamer, I want you to be like other wives). Third, it makes clear Petruchio’s willingness to be undisguised with Kate while he maintains his mask with her society and thus establishes his distance from them and their view of the “taming” – an attitude he will later make clear: “If she and I be pleas’d, what’s that to you?”, “Be madde and merry, or goe hang yourselues” (Cohen, 277).

José Zayas, director of the ASC’s 2023 Summer production of Shrew, was excited to work within the challenge of the Folio’s text and to take on this aspect of Petruchio’s performative potential by preserving the position of the Folio’s stage direction. While the Folio is not an answer key to performing these plays, watching Aidan O’Reilly (who plays Petruchio) and Jess Kadish (who plays Kate) navigate this moment in performance makes me wonder how (or why) it would possibly be played any other way. And I’m not alone in my conclusion: the Arden 2 edition of Shrew (published 1981) places the stage direction where Capell did, directly before “Here comes your father.” The Arden 3 edition of Shrew (published 2010) moves the stage direction back to where the Folio originally sets it, and credits Cohen’s Looking for Cousin Ferdinand (published 1998) for the restoration.

Jess Kadish, Jack Young, Aidan O’Reilly, and Erica Cruz Hernández in ASC’s 2023 THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.

The 2023 production of Shrew at the American Shakespeare Center follows the Folio’s explicit and embedded stage directions in this moment: Baptista et al enter when the Folio says they should; to satisfy the embedded stage direction, in this production Petruchio notices their re-entrance when Kate does not, and after putting on the the performance of Petruchio the Tamer for the benefit of Kate’s father, he uses “here comes your father” as an explanatory aside directly to Kate, as if to explain his his extreme shift in temperament three lines earlier. We see both the performance, and Petruchio the Performer letting Kate in on the joke — one that she will eventually learn to tell herself, with and without her husband. The staging is as unique to the production as the actors who bring it to life, rooted in a 400-year-old collaboration between artists living and dead. Happy anniversary indeed, Folio!

2023 is not only the First Folio’s 400th Anniversary, but also the American Shakespeare Center’s 35th Anniversary! Join us for a very special year of titles, including our Summer Season which is now playing through August 13 at the Blackfriars Playhouse: Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, and Much Ado About Nothing. Check out our full calendar of events and book your tickets today!

Works Cited and Referenced
  • Cohen, Ralph. “Looking for Cousin Ferdinand: The Value of F1 Stage Directions for a Production of the Taming of the Shrew.” Textual Formations and Reformation, edited by Laurie Maguire and Thomas Berger, Associated University Presses, Inc., 1998.
  • “Shakespeare First Folio | Folger Shakespeare Library.” Www.folger.edu, www.folger.edu/explore/shakespeare-in-print/first-folio/.
  • Shakespeare, William, et al. The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed., New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.
  • —. The Taming of the Shrew. Edited by Brian Morris, 2nd ed., London ; Singapore, The Arden Shakespeare, 1981.
  • Shakespeare, William, and Barbara Hodgdon. The Taming of the Shrew. London ; New York, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016.
  • Wells, Stanley, et al. William Shakespeare : A Textual Companion. New York, Norton, 1997.