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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

Shakespeare, the First Folio and the City of London

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

The first ever collection of William Shakespeare's plays was published 400 years ago this year.

St Mary Aldermanbury Garden

Known as the First Folio, it was published in London in 1623, seven years after the Bard's death in 1616. The exact scale of the print run is unknown, but it has been estimated at 750 copies. There are still 235 in existence around the world today.

 

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All the key people and locations involved in the production and sale of the First Folio were located within a few hundred yards of each other in the City of London (see maps towards the end of this post).


It was the brainchild of two actors who were residents in the St Mary Aldermanbury parish. It was printed at a print shop in Barbican and sold at St Paul's Churchyard, while the rights to publication were registered at Stationers' Hall very close to the Cathedral.


Of the copies of the First Folio that survive today, the one that is closest to where it was printed and first sold is at the Guildhall Library, opposite a small park called St Mary Aldermanbury Garden.


St Mary Aldermanbury Garden

In this small park, there is a monument consisting of a pink granite plinth on the top of which rests a bronze bust of William Shakespeare. However, it is not really a memorial to the Bard, rather it commemorates the two men to whom we owe our knowledge of so many of Shakespeare's plays.


John Heminge (also sometimes spelt as Heminges) and Henry Condell lived and were buried in the parish of St Mary Aldermanbury, whose church once stood in this garden.


They were friends of Shakespeare and fellow actors and shareholders with him in the Chamberlain's Men, the troupe that became the King's Men after 1603. Together with Richard Burbage, who died in 1619, they were the most senior members of the theatre company.


The two men collected Shakespeare's plays into the publication of the First Folio, effectively as its editors.


The book included 36 of Shakespeare's plays, of which 18 had never previously been published in any form.


Of those that had been published in quarto format before the First Folio, nine had been in cheap editions containing significant errors in the text. Quarto was a kind of pamphlet, its name a reference to the process of folding each sheet of paper four times prior to assembly.


The other plays only existed as actors' scripts or prompt copies used by the theatre company, while there may also have been some in manuscript from the playwright himself.


It was very unusual for plays to be collected and published in the more substantial (and durable) folio format, where each sheet is folded only once before stitching and binding into a book.

Indeed, the majority of plays written during the Golden Age of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre are known to us today only by their title, with no surviving script.


Around 3,000 plays are thought to have been staged between the 1560s and 1642, when the Puritan Parliament closed the theatres. Only 230 texts still exist from that period, of which 38 are by Shakespeare (two of these were omitted from the First Folio).

Bronze of Shakespeare on the memorial to Heminge and Condell, St Mary Aldermanbury Garden

The inscription on the front of the memorial to Heminge and Condell, erected in 1895, sums up their contribution:


"To their disinterested affection the world owes all that it calls Shakespeare. They alone collected his dramatic writings regardless of pecuniary loss and, without the hope of any profit, gave them to the world. They thus deserve the gratitude of mankind."


The book did not include Shakespeare's sonnets or long poems, but the thrust of this tribute is entirely deserved. However, the two actors could not have published the First Folio alone and without financial backing from those who may have been motivated by more commercial thoughts.


For this, they needed contacts in the printing, publishing and bookselling trades. Fortunately, such people were very nearby and a syndicate was formed.


Stationers' Hall

The Stationers' Company ( or the Worshipful Company of Stationers & Newspaper Makers, to use its full current name) was very powerful in Shakespeare's time. Only members of the Company were allowed to print, publish and sell books. This meant that all of the syndicate that produced and sold the First Folio were Stationers' members.


Moreover, the Stationers' Register was the sole record of who held the rights to make copies of printed works. The term copyright has its origins in the Register in an era when printers/publishers, rather than authors, were the rights holders.


The names of the publishers that held the rights to individual Shakespeare plays published before the First Folio had already been recorded in the Stationers' Register.


The two senior members of the First Folio syndicate, bookseller Edward Blount and printer Isaac Jaggard, went to Stationers' Hall on 8 November 1623 to record in the Register their rights to 16 plays for which syndicate members did not already hold rights.


After discovering that they already held the rights to one play each, they paid the fee of seven shillings for the remaining 14 plays to be included in the Folio. Negotiations with the holders of the rights to the previously registered plays resulted in a number of them joining the syndicate or selling their rights.


Stationers' Hall still stands today on the site it has occupied since 1606, which was during Shakespeare's lifetime, although the original hall was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The current hall substantially dates from the 1670s, but also includes remodelling and refurbishment from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Stationers' Hall

Barbican

Isaac Jaggard's father William had died just a few days before he and Edward Blount made their First Folio entry in the Register.


Isaac inherited his father's printing business and succeeded him as the official printer to the City of London. He also assumed responsibility for printing all the copies the First Folio.


The printing trade was mainly in the Fleet Street area, but the Jaggards' print shop was in Barbican, under the sign of the Half Eagle.


Until World War II Barbican was the name of a street, roughly where Beech Street is now at the northern edge of today's Barbican estate. The area would be unrecognisable to anyone from Shakespeare's time today, but he has left his mark here.


One of the estate's residential tower blocks is named after Shakespeare, as is a pub around the corner on Goswell Road (at the southwest corner of the Golden Lane estate).


St Paul's Churchyard

The space outside St Paul's Cathedral had been the centre of the bookselling trade for centuries by the early 17th century.


Books and other printed products could be purchased from book shops in the houses in the northeast corner of the Churchyard. They curved around St Paul's Cross, a large outdoor covered pulpit where crowds often gathered to hear sermons and other public talks.


Edward Blount, a prominent bookseller, lived in a four storey house on St Paul's Churchyard somewhere between Canon Alley and Panyer Alley (street names that still exist today). His bookshop was on the ground floor, under the sign of the Black Bear.


Edward Blount's was the first shop to sell copies of Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, to give the First Folio its official title.

St Paul's Churchyard. Edward Blount's house was roughly where the tree in the centre of the picture is today.

The book included a portrait of William Shakespeare by the artist and engraver Martin Droeshout, with a poem by playwright Ben Jonson attesting to its being a close likeness.


Shakespeare had been dead for seven years by 1623, but no portraits definitively of the Bard exist from his lifetime and so this image has become the template for his appearance.

 image credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University [2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10730498
Shakespeare's portrait by Martin Droeshout on the First Folio title page. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University [2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10730498

The investment and return

The publication contained around 900 pages and sold for 15 shillings. As was usual at that time, the price did not include a cover.


According to various sources and my own calculations, this price was somewhere between two weeks' and two months' wages for a good worker. For those who could afford it, bound copies could be found for £1.


It has been estimated that the First Folio required an investment of 6s 8d per copy, or £250 in total (for a run of 750), which was a significant sum. According to the National Archives Currency Converter, this sum could buy 30 horses, 135 cows or pay a skilled tradesman for almost 14 years.


Selling at 15s each, the 750 copies would have grossed £562 10s.


Heminge and Condell's main motivation may have been their love for Shakespeare and his plays, but the printers, publishers and booksellers that they needed to produce the First Folio were businessmen working to recover their investment and make a profit.


Either way, the payout to posterity was incalculable in cultural terms. Without the efforts of Heminge and Condell, we may never have known the 18 plays it published for the first time.


These include such Titans of the theatre as Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. It is also possible that some of those that had been previously published might not have survived, or would only be known in their cheap quarto form.


A huge number of phrases coined for the first time by Shakespeare in his plays would have been lost to the English language. These include:

Break the ice, brave new world, a charmed life, the dogs of war, fair play, faint hearted, knock knock who's there, one fell swoop, to play the fool, rhyme nor reason, short shrift, thereby hangs a tale, what's done is done


Fortunately, the First Folio was published and we do have Shakespeare's plays and contributions to the language.


All's well that ends well.

Mike Calder, image of John Norden's Map of London, 1593, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Mike Calder, image of  John Norden's Map of London, 1593, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The locations mentioned in this post are within a 10 minute walk of each other
 

Locations mentioned in this blog, and many more, can be seen on my walking tour Shakespeare in the City of London.

Who's that peeping out from Stationers' Hall? Photo: Niki Gorick Photography
 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.

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