also known under the complete title:

Mr. William
SHAKESPEARES
COMEDIES
HISTORIES &
TRAGEDIES.

Published according to the True Originall Copies.

Printed by Isaac Iaggard and Ed. Blount., London,1623.

The First Folio is thus named because it is the first folio printing of any of Shakespeare’s works – previous editions were all quartos – the folio format was usually reserved for works of known and lasting significance or reference works. It is called the First Folio because three later editions of comparable size were printed subsequently – the Second Folio of 1632, the Third Folio of 1663, and the Fourth Folio of 1685.

Printed seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the First Folio is the only reason why many of Shakespeare’s plays still exist – it contains 36 plays, 18 of which had been previously printed - 16 which had been printed in various edited editions, some considerably so, and two plays that were reproduced exactly as previously printed. None of the previous printings survived long, and the Second Folio was printed almost entirely based upon the First. Thus, without the First Folio, half of Shakespeare’s plays would not have survived to the present day.

The First Folio contains:

Almost all of the plays in the First Folio were printed using the best possible sources available, including manuscripts and notes from Shakespeare’s collection. And even as the Folio was being printed, numerous changes were made in the text. For this reason, the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C. has collected 79 copies of the First Folio, about a third of the extant copies, to compare and contrast the differences in the printing.

Many many editions have been printed based upon the First Folio, as well as the text here on E2. For a feel of the First Folio itself, the facsimilie printed by Yale University Press is nice and reasonably priced. There is also the cd-rom edition, published by Octavo, which is nice, but pricey at $75.

Sources:
http://www.folger.edu/library/collect.asp
William Shakespeare – Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, Octavo, 2001
Blayney, Peter W. M. The First Folio of Shakespeare. Folger Library Publications, 1991

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