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Shakespeare's Folios




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West Virginia University Libraries is home to one of the rarest and most important book collections in the history of the English language – William Shakespeare’s Folios.

The first of Shakespeare’s four folios was published in 1623, seven years after the poet-playwright’s death. A folio is a book of large paper folded in half, which was usually reserved for royal proclamations and other significant documents of the time. 

If Shakespeare’s friends had not gathered his work for publication, half of his plays might have been lost forever. Only 750 copies of the First Folio were printed. Today, nearly four centuries later, roughly 235 remain. 

The folios represent different print editions released throughout the 1600s. Each folio contained the same plays and poems, although the Third and Fourth Folios included seven additional literary pieces. WVU Libraries received the folios from the estate of Arthur Dayton in the 1950s. Dayton earned his law degree at WVU in the early 1900s and practiced law in West Virginia.


We spoke with Stewart Plein, rare book librarian at WVU Libraries, and Christine Hoffmann, assistant professor of English, about the four folios. 

Hoffman on the First Folio: Since he left behind no manuscripts or official publications of his own, we have others to thank for the preservation of his work: actors and audience members, patrons and poets, publishers and printers. 

A bulk of the massive book – as the title page promises – is made up of Shakespeare’s collected histories, tragedies and comedies; 18 of these had never been published and might have been lost to history, including modern favorites “Macbeth,” “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It.”

Plein on the Second Folio: The English language is in transition at this time (1632) and the Second Folio displays changes in spelling, punctuation and lettering that is readily apparent, especially when compared with the First Folio. Of note is the first appearance of a poem, An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramaticke, written by John Milton in 1630 while he was still a student at Cambridge. 

Plein on the Third Folio: Interest in Shakespeare continues to rise with the Third Folio in 1664. This is perhaps the rarest folio, as a result of the Great Fire of London in 1666, which consumed the entire city, including the area where booksellers and printers were located. 

Hoffmann on the Fourth Folio: It’s interesting to compare the subtle differences between the First Folio from 1623 and the Fourth Folio from 1685. The prefatory poems by Ben Jonson and others are much reduced in size. Shakespeare himself looms larger on the page while other figures diminish.

If the First Folio was a financial risk, revisions to the Fourth Folio suggest it was a bigger risk not to try to make money off of Shakespeare, which is perhaps the main reason the editors of the Fourth advertise seven plays “never before printed in Folio,” most of which Shakespeare did not write. Only “Pericles” has gotten the official stamp of authenticity.


Read more about the folios in this blog post by WVU Libraries