Professor Emma Smith, Hertford College, Oxford

Published 2023

First Folios Compared offers two routes into the documents: 
1. The chance to choose your favourite First Folio for reading and research, from copies held across the globe.

We don’t often compare the same book in different copies. These digital facsimiles are surprisingly different colours (due partly to the ageing of the linen paper in different conditions, and partly to the different conditions of photography to create the facsimile). They have a range of resolutions and reproduce copies that are variously clean (sometimes washed), trimmed, annotated, grubby, stained, incomplete or torn. The most widely known print facsimile, produced by Charlton Hinman as the Norton Facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare in 1968, selected preferred pages from a score of copies to produce a perfect, but non-existent, facsimile. First Folios Compared allows you to see that no extant copy is perfect; all are idiosyncratic in one way or another. A go-to copy, for research and reading and exploration, is largely a matter of personal preference among these variables.  

2. The opportunity to compare the copies to trace corrections, printing-house practices, and evidence of later reception, including ownership, marginalia and emendations.

Although (or perhaps because) Shakespeare’s First Folio is probably the world’s most famous – and studied – secular book, there is still a real opportunity to make discoveries about individual copies. Take the Craven copy, for example: only recently identified as a First, rather than a later, Folio, it has hardly been studied at all. More people have looked in awe at these copies as high-value objects kept for senior researchers or behind glass for museum-style viewing, than have actually turned each page looking for details. First Folios Compared allows you to do this, at scale, for the first time.  

Here are some areas to get started with when looking to compare the First Folios:

Title page of King LearDifferent copies can reveal how stop-press corrections produced a mixture of corrected and uncorrected sheets that is unique to each copy. Have a look at the stage direction for Lear’s death – it exists in three different versions. Charlton Hinman did all the work on Folio variants seven decades ago and it’s not impossible that there are still unnoticed ones about.

The Droeshout Portrait of ShakespeareThe engraving by Martin Droeshout on the title-page of the book also exists in different states. See this blog by Sarah Werner for how to spot the difference.

A heavily annotated page from the St Omer copy of Henry the FourthMarks of use can show us how the book has been used in different contexts. The St-Omer copy of 1 Henry IV for instance, is marked up for use in education at the Jesuit college: note the way that the Hostess is turned into the more suitable Host. Leafing through a copy may show lots of unmarked pages, but do persevere, since most copies have intermittent rather than consistent signs of reading.

A page from Auckland's copy of Othello with Anne Hearle's name written in the nameplate.Names and bookplates can be investigated to extend the provenance history for different volumes. There’s lots still to find out. Who was Anne Hearle, for instance, who wrote her name twice in the Auckland copy of Othello? and Book Owners Online can be helpful places to start.  

A ripped page from the Bodleian Library's copy of Romeo and Juliet. Even if marks are not verbal, the quantity of dirt, spills and smears, or of paper repairs (usually visible as a patch of different-coloured paper) can give a sense of which plays were most often read. 1 Henry IV is quite often a favourite (see the Haverford copy for an example). The Bodleian Library claimed that early readers of their copy loved Romeo and Juliet and left King John without any sign that they had read it at all, but that hasn’t been tested against other copies (the John Rylands Library copy, for instance, would contradict that, with a distinctly used King John).

The last and damaged leaf from Auckland's Folio.The final leaf of Cymbeline is one of the most vulnerable in the volume – take a look at some examples: Auckland’s is a bit bashed up; St-Omer’s doesn’t have it; Bodmer Library’s is perfect.

An annotated page from Boston Public Library's copy of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.The preliminary pages, before the plays begin, are one of the most vulnerable sections of the text and are often replaced by facsimiles of varying quality. They also tend to be bound in different orders, creating a different introduction to the book. Bookbinders’ work can be traced by inspecting the pictures of bindings, but also looking at notes, for example the page in the Boston Public Library copy at the end of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which explains binding anomalies.

Page 379 of the State Library of New South Wales' copy of Cymberline with a corrected page number written in the corner.Many copies show evidence of emendations, sometimes bringing in readings from other early editions or from more modern editions. The New Variorum volumes, or the digitised 18th-century editions at the Internet Shakespeare can be useful for tracing where the emendation comes from. Look out for readers who’ve tried to regularise the First Folio’s sometimes erratic pagination (the State Library of New South Wales' copy is a good example, in Cymbeline).

Text of the famous Romeo and Juliet balcony sceneIt’s worth looking at ‘famous’ moments: the scene at Juliet’s balcony, or Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy, to see if they have attracted attention, but one interesting thing about earlier readers is the sense that their tastes and interests might be different from current priorities.

We would love to hear how you get on comparing the First Folios hosted on this site. If you discover something new or intriguing (or even revolutionary!) please do share it with us, our site advisor Professor Emma Smith, and the wider research community by using the following hashtag on Twitter: #firstfolioscompared