Printing the First Folio

Printing the First Folio

Dr Ruth Frendo, Archivist, Stationers' Company Archives

Published 2023

Stationers’ Company Archive, TSC/1/E/06/03: Register of entries of copies 1620-1645 (Liber D)On 8 November 1623, Edward Blount and Isaac Jaggard entered a work in the Stationers’ Register which was to have a profound influence on the literature and culture of the Western world, and on the very texture of the English language. Mr. William Shakspeers Comedyes, Histories & Tragedyes is today better known as the First Folio, the first single-volume printed compilation of Shakespeare’s plays.  

Entry in the Stationers’ Register was a crucial step in formalising the publication of a text at that time. Throughout the latter half of the sixteenth century, successive royal injunctions and decrees of Star Chamber set out the parameters of a licensing system which established the monarch and the Church as the sole arbitrators of legitimate printing. To be effective, licensing required a reliable system of record-keeping, and this is where the Stationers’ Company entered the equation. A century and a half after the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London approved the formation of a Guild of Stationers in 1403, that guild had grown powerful enough to successfully petition the Crown for a Royal Charter of Incorporation, which they received in 1557, followed by the right to have a livery in 1559. The meteoric ascent of a trade association whose members originally included text writers, manuscript illuminators and parchmenters had a simple explanation: in 1476, Caxton introduced the printing press to England.   

By 1554, print had revolutionised the transmission of the written word, and the authorities – eager to limit its potential for sedition – were keen to establish a regulatory body. Professionally poised to dominate the field, the Stationers were the natural candidates. Investing their company with the exclusive right to register licensed works allowed the authorities to monitor the circulation of texts. For their own part, the Stationers used their Register as a means of confining print privileges to their own members. Today, the Stationers’ Register, spanning several centuries as it does, is prized by researchers for the insight it gives us into print history. And to date, the most frequently consulted volumes have been those relating to the Early Modern period, which, together with the records of the Revels Office, constitute the chief primary source for the study of English Renaissance theatre. 

Stationers’ Company Archive, TSC/1/E/06/02: Register of entries of copies, with accounts and memoranda, 1595-1631 (Liber C)It’s worth remembering, though, that the titles entered in the Stationers’ Register represent only a fraction of plays actually performed during that golden age of theatre. As the property of the acting company that commissioned them, most plays were neither registered nor printed. Printing a play effectively released its text to rival companies, and so it didn't usually happen until the play's performance value was considered exhausted – or when ready cash was required (a regular occurrence at a time when theatres were subject to frequent closure due to political interference or outbreaks of plague). Conversely, the printing process also allowed a company to establish ownership of a text that had been appropriated and altered by other players. An earlier volume of the Stationers’ Register offers a wonderful example of this sort of pinpointing: on 26 November 1607, Nathaniel Butter and John Busby entered ‘A book called Mr William Shakespeare his historye of Kinge Lear as it was played before the Kinge Maiestie at Whitehall uppon St Stephans night at Christmas last by his Ma[ies]ties servants playinge usually at the Globe on the Bankside’. While not all entries contain this level of specificity, the Register has been invaluable in helping Shakespeare scholars to identify unauthorised printed texts of Shakespeare’s plays, or ‘bad quartos’. It is these versions which Heminges and Condell, the original editors of the First Folio, colourfully refer to in their preface as ‘stolen, and surreptitious copies, maim'd and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors’.

The comparative scarcity of surviving play texts from this period comes to mind when we look at the wording of the First Folio’s entry in the Stationers’ Register: ‘so manie of the said Copies as are not formerly entered to other men, vizt...’ As the first appearance in print of plays including The Tempest, As You Like It, Macbeth and Julius Caesar, without the First Folio, these plays could all too easily have been lost – and with them, so many phrases, characterisations and tropes which we have come to take for granted.

The entry also reminds us what a monumental task the printing of the First Folio was. When Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell decided to put the Folio together, William Jaggard was a good printer to approach. Despite his poor health (he suffered from syphilis, and went blind in 1612), by the 1620s he was well-established in the trade. Although in 1619 a contract with Thomas Pavier led him into a somewhat disreputable skirmish with the King’s Men (again, over printing unauthorised versions of Shakespeare), he was generally respected by his peers. Moreover, he had experience of handling the sort of prestige publication that Heminges and Condell sought. While individual plays were typically sold as quartos – a cheap and popular format well within the means of many theatregoers – folios were expensive to produce, and therefore marketed as luxury acquisitions. With his son Isaac, Jaggard had overseen the highly successful folio publication of a translation of The Decameron just three years before taking on Heminges and Condell’s commission. Moreover, the Jaggards (in partnership with Edward Blount) had the right connections within the Stationers’ Company to negotiate the transfer of rights in those works 'formerly entered to other men'. These other men included Edward White, Thomas Pavier, Arthur Johnson, Lawrence Hayes, Nathaniel Butter, Matthew Law, Henry Walley, Thomas Dewe, William Aspley and John Smethwick. Of these, Aspley and Smethwick chose to invest in the publishing syndicate rather than sell their rights for a lumpsum, a decision which proved shrewd, as the First Folio proved an unexpected hit. Sadly, William Jaggard didn’t live to see the success of his last venture: he died just days before the volume was registered, leaving Isaac and Blount to make the entry.  


Image credits:

- Stationers’ Company Archive, TSC/1/E/06/03: Register of entries of copies 1620-1645 (Liber D)
- Stationers’ Company Archive, TSC/1/E/06/02: Register of entries of copies, with accounts and memoranda, 1595-1631 (Liber C)

A letter with an elaborate letter head from the Stationers' CompanyIf you are interested in the Stationers’ Register, and the countless other fascinating documents held in the Stationers’ Company Archives, take a look at Literary Print Culture – a digital archive resource created in partnership with AM and the Stationers’ Company.