Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book by Emma Smith

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Review by Liz Dexter

In stressing users of the First Folio, then, this book is not concerned with the discussions of how the Folio came to be published, the provenance of its texts, or the technicalities of its production. Rather, we begin where traditional bibliography ends – in the retail bookshop […] but where traditional biography starts – with the emergence of its subject into the world.

Just why is the First Folio “iconic”? Why is it the most expensive book in the world, guarded by security guards, locked away, revered, when once it attracted scribblings, notes, corrections, spillages and at least one set of inky cat pawprints? That’s what Smith sets out to discover in this hefty volume, first published in 2016 and here in a second edition with a new preface, to celebrate 400 years of the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays together in print. 

One of the first things Smith does in the Preface is remind us that she misnamed the book, for it didn’t become known as the First Folio until a couple of centuries after it was printed. This is very much a book about the Folio’s afterlife, not about its gathering and construction, although it does mention the corrections made in press that mean there are no two copies that are quite the same, and the editing that subsequently got done to this text, and questions about whether it or corrected copies should stand as the accepted text of the plays (this question has gone back and forth over the centuries). In five long chapters – Owning, Reading, Decoding, Performing and Perfecting – Smith looks at how copies have passed between owners, how they were read and annotated, how people have picked through for different purposes, including claiming they were written by someone else, how they were sometimes used for performance purposes and how new versions, facsimiles and the like have been produced. In this last section, she pulls out the interesting fact that a facsimile of the First Folio is almost ubiquitously used to demonstrate new technologies of reproduction, whether that’s new ways of creating facsimiles, wax cylinders reproducing speech, CD-Roms or most recently digitisation, as well as being woven into popular culture, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s copy being physically present at the first National Lottery Draw in the UK, for example. 

The preface is vital to the work, bringing out new research that has been done since the original text was written, including finding out who some of the owners and annotators were, and teasing out the strands of Georgian luxury consumption and its link to the ownership of enslaved people, an important point to consider in any book covering this period of history. 

The introduction looks at the first confirmed owner of the book and why and how he owned it; the research done on this is meticulous and the pathways of ownership (not ALL leading to the Folger Library, which does have the most copies in the world) covered in the first chapter are fascinating. Smith makes clear that the status implications were there from the start: this was a coffee-table book, designed to be displayed and known, not actually that easy to read or certainly perform from.  As we go along, Smith carefully brings out the women and people of minorities who were involved with the book. She also covers the role of the book in globalisation, noting that an early act was often to place a copy into libraries in new colonies. 

Smith is very good on customisation of and engagement with the book, with owners annotating, correcting and doodling in the margins, this process moving on to editors later on creating new editions and even “facsimile” editions being made up of pages from various disparate copies. She pulls together other academics’ research to create a synthesised whole and an excellent resource. The conclusion covers the technical storage of the book and its exacting requirements and finally a sad story of thievery which shows that “it is quite possible to over-value this most valuable of books”, a slightly odd ending to the book.

The book as a physical copy is nicely bound with a silky bookmark, of course. Footnotes are used for references and there’s a full bibliography and a comprehensive index. There are reproductions of images and pages of First Folios with interesting annotations. My only small quibble is that the paper block it’s printed on being significantly larger than the print block that’s reproduced, the print could have been made a little larger for the older eye!

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Liz Dexter has handled a First Folio, complete with security guard standing by, for work in a previous job. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at

Emma Smith, Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (OUP, 2023) ‎ 978- 0192886644, 379 pp., ill., hardback.

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  1. Sounds like a fascinating read Liz, not only for those interested in Shakespeare, but also those interested in books and collecting them! And I’m most jealous that you’ve held a copy…

  2. Yes, it will appeal to a range of readers, and covers a lot of areas. And I know, I was so lucky and I like popping to visit “my” copy from time to time!

  3. This is a really helpful review, Liz, thanks. Popping back to your blog to read your other review of this there!

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