Guest Host: Rebecca Roberts

First Folios at the Folger Shakespeare Library

First Folios at the Folger Shakespeare Library

Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays–including “Julius Caesar,” and “Macbeth”– survived only because they were included in what became known as the First Folio, a volume of his work published in London in 1623. Over the centuries, the volumes have been sold, lost, re-bound, stolen, and studied. Of the 232 remaining copies, a third of them are collected right here in Washington at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where an exhibition traces some of their extraordinary stories.


  • Owen Williams Co-Curator, Fame, Fortune, Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio; Assistant Director of the Folger Institute.
  • Barbara Mowat Co-editor, Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

Images from The Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Fame, Fortune, Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio” Exhibit:

(All Images Courtesy of The Folger Shakespeare Library)

Related Video From the Folger Shakespeare Library

Why is the First Folio So Important?####

The First Folio: A 400-Year Obsession

Editing Shakespeare: Issues an Editor Confronts


  • 12:06:41

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, it's hard to overstate the importance of Shakespeare's first folio. Printed nearly four centuries ago, the volume contains 36 of Shakespeare's plays, more than half of which would not have survived otherwise.

  • 12:07:12

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSWithout it, we wouldn't have "Macbeth" or "Julius Caesar" or "The Tempest." These are just over -- there are just over 200 first folios in existence, and more than a third of those are right here in Washington. Each volume has a story, many with intrigues worthy of any Shakespearean drama, like the folio stolen by a shoe salesman posing as a scholar. He replaced the stolen volume with a book called "Reynard the Fox."

  • 12:07:34

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSAnd most of the first folios have suffered the indignities of being rebound and trimmed and bleached, and even pulled apart and sold off as individual plays. An exhibit right now at the Shakespeare Folger Library shares some of these stories. Joining us to talk about it is Owen Williams. He's the co-curator of the exhibit "Fame, Fortune, Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio" at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

  • 12:07:55

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSHe's also the assistant director of the Folger Institute. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:07:59

    MR. OWEN WILLIAMSThank you.

  • 12:08:01

    ROBERTSAnd Barbara Mowat, she is director of research America at the Folger and the co-editor of the Folger Shakespeare Library editions of Shakespeare's plays. Welcome to you.

  • 12:08:09

    MS. BARBARA MOWATGood morning.

  • 12:08:10

    ROBERTSAnd, of course, we want to hear from you. Join us by calling 800-433-8850, or email us, You can also get in touch with us through our Facebook page or by sending a tweet to @kojoshow. So let's first define what we're talking about here in terms of what the first folio is. Let's start with you, Barbara Mowat.

  • 12:08:35

    MOWATOkay. Thanks. Basically, it is the collection of 36 of Shakespeare's plays. It was the first collection -- or the first collection of all of the plays, and it was published in 1623. And I think that's basically -- I mean, that's the core of the definition.

  • 12:08:58

    ROBERTSSo Shakespeare had died in 1616.

  • 12:09:00

    MOWATThat's correct.

  • 12:09:01

    ROBERTSWho put it together?

  • 12:09:03

    MOWATWell, two of his fellow actors took responsibility for it. They claimed that they put it together. There is some belief that they had some help, you know, perhaps from one of the major scribes, whose name was Ralph Crane. Some people think he might have -- we know that he transcribed several of the plays that are in the folio, and he may have helped out with the editing.

  • 12:09:30

    MOWATAnd there was a consortium of investors who may -- you know, came up with the money and made it possible to do, but it was Hemmings and Condell, two of his fellow actors, who we credit with this.

  • 12:09:45

    ROBERTSAnd the first part of the name is certainly easy to understand. What is a folio?

  • 12:09:49

    MOWATOh, that refers to the size of the book. If you -- if the printer takes a sheet of paper and prints just -- prints it without folding it, that's called a broadside. And they did that some. If you fold it one time, it's called a folio. So it's a big book.

  • 12:10:08

    ROBERTSAnd was it unusual for plays which were not necessarily high literature in the 17th century to get this sort of a treatment?

  • 12:10:17

    WILLIAMSI would say yes, that plays are usually considered fairly ephemeral in the period. And, as Barbara is alluding to, this is the first time we have a collection solely of plays. Ben Johnson had famously done works earlier and had include poetry and plays and other things. But it's -- you know, it was -- it's unprecedented in the history of publishing that this venture thought that they could make money on -- solely on plays.

  • 12:10:48

    ROBERTSWell, the other thing -- you know, we say that there's only 232 or so still existing, and that seems like such a small number globally. On the other hand, if only 5-, 6-, 700 were published, that's a pretty remarkable percentage to last 400 years.

  • 12:11:01

    WILLIAMSThe survival rate is amazing. You know, we speculate, following Peter Blayney, that something on the order of 750 were originally published. We know that it sold out fairly quickly, that the second folio was published in...

  • 12:11:16


  • 12:11:16

    WILLIAMS...'32. So just a few years later, which is pretty good. It's amazing. So, yeah, I think that -- yeah, it was -- we can count it a success.

  • 12:11:27

    ROBERTSDoes that mean that people understood how important it was from the very beginning?

  • 12:11:32

    WILLIAMSThat's a great question. We know that others were collecting quartos, the smaller format versions of single plays. But nothing -- but the format of a folio is much more substantial in lots of different ways. And so I think that we could -- it's safe to say that it does signify in a different way than a single play and perhaps is collectible, but there's nothing like the book collector fervor that we saw in the 19th and the 20th century.

  • 12:12:05

    MOWATOne thing that is part of this story is that people at the time -- I mean, they might have valued it as a folio, but not as necessarily as the first. They thought the second was probably better because it was newer and had been -- you know, had some corrections. And the third, therefore, would be better still, and the fourth would be better still. So it took a while for people to recognize that the first folio was the one with the authority.

  • 12:12:33

    MOWATThe changes that came in later could not be traced back to Shakespeare, and therefore that it was the first folio that we needed to pay attention to.

  • 12:12:42

    WILLIAMSAlong those lines, it famously -- the so-called deposit copy, which was sent directly from the stationers in London to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, was sold when the third folio came out, when they had a new and improved Shakespeare folio that had extra plays. So, of course, you're going to dedupe your collection in a librarian sense and get what's newest.

  • 12:13:03

    WILLIAMSLuckily, for the Bodleian, they were able to reacquire that in 1905 by outbidding a certain famous American collector who was also in the market for first folios.

  • 12:13:15

    ROBERTSWho might or might not be the person who established the Folger Shakespeare Library.

  • 12:13:20


  • 12:13:20

    WILLIAMSWe know who it was. We know who it was. And, surprisingly enough, they didn't want to loan that copy to us when we asked them.

  • 12:13:25


  • 12:13:26

    WILLIAMSAnd (unintelligible)...

  • 12:13:27

    ROBERTSHolding a grudge for 100 years.

  • 12:13:30

    ROBERTSWell, what I like about the exhibition, and I got a chance to see it yesterday, and I should encourage our audience to go. Unfortunately, it closes this weekend. So go if you can between now and then. It's called "Fame, Fortune, Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio," and it's at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill.

  • 12:13:44

    ROBERTSWhat I like about it is that it's really about the book, not just about the content of the book and about how obsessive people really do get about it and comparing, you know, which edition has what and whether or not this is an original last page of "Troilus and..." -- "Cymbeline," I guess, is the one that matters.

  • 12:14:04

    WILLIAMSMm hmm. "Cymbeline," that's correct.

  • 12:14:05

    ROBERTSAnd that obsession was fueled so much by Henry Folger himself and his desire to collect as many of these as he can. Did you feel when you were putting together the exhibit, Owen Williams, that it was -- that you sort of got inside his head?

  • 12:14:20

    WILLIAMSI think so. One of the -- I had an inkling of how shrewd a businessman he was. But he was a master of setting up shells and agents to protect his name and his interest in this collecting field. He had book dealers looking out for him both sides of the Atlantic and was after any copy that was even close to being a complete copy. As you say, you know, there's definitely gradations in terms of the quality and the completeness of these copies.

  • 12:14:51

    WILLIAMSHe was wired in to the center, and he had a -- you know, he used codes. He had a pseudonym for his telegrams so that none of his competitors could track his interest in this field.

  • 12:15:07

    ROBERTSAnd it also -- I mean, the exhibit includes a letter from him where he's trying to buy a particular copy, where he's low-balling the guy. He's completely lying about what he paid for...

  • 12:15:15

    WILLIAMSThat's right.

  • 12:15:15

    ROBERTS...another copy.

  • 12:15:16

    WILLIAMSIn that letter, he says, I'll have you know, sir, I've never paid 48,000 for a first folio, which, yes, that's technically true. He had paid 50,000...

  • 12:15:27

    WILLIAMS...for a first folio. So, yeah, he was very shrewd.

  • 12:15:31

    ROBERTSAnd do you think, Barbara Mowat, the book itself -- obviously, you know, rarity and association with someone as iconic as Shakespeare certainly feels that. But do you think that there's something about that book itself that makes people care about it so much?

  • 12:15:48

    MOWATYes. Yes. I really do. I've had the pleasure when I was director of research at the Folger of taking many people down into the vaults to actually see that lineup of first folios and, you know, take one off the shelf, and they actually get to touch it. And it's like you're in some kind of sacred place. It -- really, there is an aura about it that I'm sure we give to it, you know, in the way that we respond to it.

  • 12:16:17

    MOWATBut people do respond to it, and I respond to it that way. I mean, I have favorite copies...

  • 12:16:24

    ROBERTSYou do?

  • 12:16:24

    MOWAT...of the first folio. Yeah, and...

  • 12:16:26

    ROBERTSWhat's your favorite copy?

  • 12:16:27

    MOWATOh, number one. Number one, which was...

  • 12:16:31

    ROBERTSFolger Number One.

  • 12:16:32

    MOWATFolger Number One, yeah, the one that has the little inscription at the beginning that this was a gift from the printer to this particular person. And it has some of its original binding. And there's just -- it's like they're magic objects. I mean, I do understand that that's part of the human brain is to give a kind of sacral quality to -- through certain objects, and this is one that is certainly is the case.

  • 12:17:00

    ROBERTSWell, let's ask our audience. What about the first folio do you think is so compelling? Is it the beauty of Shakespeare's plays? Is it the rarity of the book? Is it the sort of intrigue over 400 years of keeping track of them? Is there something about the first folio that seems different from another old book? 800-433-8850 or email us, Owen Williams, go ahead.

  • 12:17:24

    WILLIAMSI just want...

  • 12:17:24

    ROBERTSI cut you off.

  • 12:17:25

    WILLIAMSI just want to pick up on this Folger Number One, that Henry Folger himself numbered his copies as they came in. And we know, at a certain point in the mid-'20s, he recalibrated his numbers. He'd purchased some very fine copies later on. And so he decided, you know, let me rethink this idea. I've been trying to crack his methodology...

  • 12:17:51


  • 12:17:51

    WILLIAMS...and have not been able to. But we know that Folger Number One has pride of place. It was the so-called Vincent gift copy. It is a gorgeous copy. And I think this is the only time that Folger himself wrote an article praising this as the most precious book in the world. It's a stunning copy.

  • 12:18:10

    ROBERTSDo you have a favorite?

  • 12:18:12

    WILLIAMSI would probably have to say Number Five.

  • 12:18:14

    ROBERTSWhy Number Five?

  • 12:18:15

    WILLIAMSThe Burdett-Coutts copy, which is an exceptionally fine copy. And it was also -- it was such a fine copy that those who produced facsimiles of the folio have often chosen this one for digital and for hardcopy facsimiles. But the story behind it, that it was -- it's one of the most protected copies in the world. I'd...

  • 12:18:34

    ROBERTSWell, it's a great story. Tell it.

  • 12:18:36

    WILLIAMSWell, since you've visited the exhibition, you'll know that not only -- one of the early owners, George John, when he acquired it, he demanded a silk handkerchief and a handsome cab to take him and his new pride purchase back home. It was later bought by the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, who's an amazing woman in her own right, lots of great stories.

  • 12:18:57

    WILLIAMSShe married her American-born secretary, who's something like 29 years her junior, and lost three-fifths of her fortune because she'd married a...

  • 12:19:05


  • 12:19:05

    WILLIAMS...foreigner, even though he was a member of parliament. He, you know, it's certainly a technicality. She had a casket built for this so-called -- at that point, so-called Daniel copy, a casket built with the motif of the "Merry Wives of Windsor," which we know was supposedly a favorite play of Queen Elizabeth. It was a probably (word?) story.

  • 12:19:27

    WILLIAMSBut she commanded Shakespeare to write another play with Falstaff so that she could see him on the stage again.

  • 12:19:32

    ROBERTSBut isn't the casket also made from an important tree? I mean, it goes on.

  • 12:19:36

    WILLIAMSIt is. It's made from a tree that was thought to be Herne's Oak, which appears in the play "Merry Wives of Windsor." And there's -- it's a high relief carving with characters from the play, including Falstaff himself on the back right corner.

  • 12:19:51

    ROBERTSAnd you can see the casket. You can see the folio at the Folger right now.

  • 12:19:55

    WILLIAMSThat's right. We have them on exhibition.

  • 12:19:57

    ROBERTSOne of the things -- I have never been to the vault to see all 82 of them together. But I've seen photographs. And one thing that strikes you is how different they actually are. Why aren't they more uniform, Barbara Mowat?

  • 12:20:08

    MOWATWell, they've been bound individually. And people who bind rare books for their collections like to do it in a very individual kind of style. And so -- and many of these actually have bindings that date from the 19th century, not from the 17th. But when people would buy a First Folio for their collection, one of the first things they would do is have it trimmed and cleaned and bound in this lovely leather.

  • 12:20:40

    MOWATAnd so you'll see many different colors, many different designs, a lot of different kinds of tool work, and that's why it's really wonderful when we can find one that has even some of its original bindings so that we could see what it might have looked at -- what it looked like, sorry.

  • 12:20:57

    ROBERTSAnd would the original binding have been goat skin?

  • 12:21:00

    WILLIAMSExactly. We actually had to borrow one because the Folger itself does not have, you know, many of those early bindings. We had to borrow one copy to demonstrate the contemporary brown goat skin that would have been, you know, more or less a standard copy. We borrowed the so-called Dr. Williams' Library copy, which is now resident here in the United States.

  • 12:21:21

    ROBERTSWe are going to take a quick break, but we will continue talking about Shakespeare's First Folio and why this book causes so much intrigue and obsession over the almost 400 years that the copies have been circulating around the world. You can join us at 800-433-8850 or send us email, I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:23:32

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are obsessing over First Folios of Shakespeare today with Owen Williams. He is the assistant director of the Folger Institute. He's also the co-curator of the exhibit there now, "Fame, Fortune, Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio." And Barbara Mowat, she is director of Research America at the Folger and the co-editor of the Folger Shakespeare Library editions of Shakespeare's plays.

  • 12:23:55

    ROBERTSAnd if you are a Shakespeare fan, if you have ever pursued or adored a First Folio, if you have questions for our Shakespeare experts, you can give us a call, 800-433-8850, or send us email, Now, we've been talking about the book and not necessarily what's inside it until now, Barbara Mowat. But it really is the only source for, what, 18 of the plays?

  • 12:24:20

    MOWATWell, I -- as far as I'm concerned, it's even more than that because some of the other plays, even though they will print it in little individual copies that we call quartos, the copies are so bad that -- I mean, these are versions of the play that are so bad that, if that's all we had, we wouldn't consider that the play, at least not really the play that we now have. So I'd say it's more than 18.

  • 12:24:49

    MOWATAnd some of them are the greatest of his plays. So -- but that's one of the reasons, of course, that scholars and, I suppose, everybody -- actors, directors -- adore the folio because it's got these plays.

  • 12:25:03

    ROBERTSAnd why isn't it necessarily the definitive version? I mean, why do people still argue over text and play scenes and annotations?

  • 12:25:12

    MOWATBecause, for several of the plays, there is another text out there -- a text that was printed during Shakespeare's lifetime, or in the case of "Othello," but just before the folio came out -- that's oftentimes quite different. And so one of the things that you -- the first things that you have to do as an editor, when you're going ready to edit a play, if it's one of these what we call two-text plays, is to decide which is going to be your basic text.

  • 12:25:44

    MOWATAnd there are not many plays like that, fortunately, where we really have...

  • 12:25:49

    ROBERTSWell, you have to do it.

  • 12:25:51

    MOWATYes. Yes. We've done that.

  • 12:25:51

    ROBERTSI mean, give us an example. Take "Hamlet," for instance.

  • 12:25:54


  • 12:25:54

    ROBERTSThere are three versions of "Hamlet?"

  • 12:25:55

    MOWATThere are three versions of "Hamlet." One of those is one of those quartos that I mentioned that is really very, very different from the -- a good quarto or from the folio. It's half the size. And many of the lines are quite garbled, and the characters are different. And sometimes the story is even different.

  • 12:26:14

    MOWATSo in the case of "Hamlet," we have that one, which some editors will go into and take stage directions out of because they -- there is a belief that I don't think many people still hold, but some people believe, that plays, like the first quarto of "Hamlet," were constructed from memory by actors.

  • 12:26:36

    MOWATAnd, therefore, if it has a stage direction, like, Hamlet leaps into the grave after Laertes, that that should go into the play because that reflects something that happened on the stage. But we don't generally take -- nobody takes anything much else from that play. But then there was a second quarto published just the year after this first short one that has a wonderful text and has a lot of things in it that's not in the folio.

  • 12:27:05

    MOWATSo you have to -- that's one of the first decisions that you have to make when you're editing the play is, are we going to go with the text that's in the second quarto, or are we going to go with the play that's in the folio? And then you have to decide if you go -- whichever one you go with, are you going to include the stuff that's in the other one or not?

  • 12:27:28

    MOWATAnd -- especially in recent years, that has become one of the big, hot debates, is, do you consider these separate plays? Do you print them as separate editions? Do you find some way of putting them together? The debate is still raging on that particular topic.

  • 12:27:48

    ROBERTSAnd say, for instance, when you put together the Folger Shakespeare Library editions, what did you do?

  • 12:27:54

    MOWATWell, in that particular case, there is so -- we went with the second quarto as most people do. The folio seems to have been kind of cleaned up. And the people have added words here and there to make the meter a little bit more exact and...

  • 12:28:16

    ROBERTSImproving Shakespeare.

  • 12:28:16

    MOWATAnd so somebody improved Shakespeare just a little bit for the folio, and so most people will go with the second quarto as their basic text. We decided that the stuff that's in the folio, that's not in the quarto, is wonderful, wonderful stuff that we don't see any reason to leave out. What we do, to let readers know that we have intervened here is the stuff that we bring in to our edition from the folio, we put in a particular kind of bracket.

  • 12:28:47

    MOWATSo that -- and so that they can look in our text notes and see that this is stuff that was in the folio that was not included in the quarto. So that was our solution. People have different solutions. Some people will print the folio and include stuff from the quarto or publish it in the back, in an appendix, or, you know, there are lots of different ways of doing it today.

  • 12:29:10

    ROBERTSAnd, Owen Williams, how different are the folios from each other?

  • 12:29:12

    WILLIAMSQuite, especially in terms of completeness. At the Folger, for example, we have a few -- just a handful of perfect copies complete with every leaf -- you know, they're in between the covers. We also have some very wanting copies. Folger himself -- we don't know why he did it -- but he actually purchased some copies that were -- that are severely wanting.

  • 12:29:34

    WILLIAMSOne of them has only 37 percent of its text leaves, which is a astounding number to -- you know, why would he even...

  • 12:29:42

    ROBERTSBought one.

  • 12:29:42

    WILLIAMSWhy would he even purchase? You know, why would he even do this? He only spent $200 for it, so, I guess, it works out all right. But, yeah, it's -- you know, those kinds of questions are ones that we will probably never be able to answer.

  • 12:29:54

    ROBERTSAnd even though they were printed rather than, say, handwritten, are there textural differences between them?

  • 12:30:00

    WILLIAMSThere are. Famously, the -- Charlton Hinman was a bibliographer of the First Folio who was able to -- he designed a -- an apparatus because we knew from an early point -- Shakespeareans knew from an early point that there were different readings, different texts. Sometimes there would be a different punctuation or a word spelled differently.

  • 12:30:19

    WILLIAMSAnd in order to identify where these occurred, this collator, which I think you have a video of on your website, uses a strobe effect to notice where these instances happen.

  • 12:30:33

    ROBERTSYou've got to describe this collator 'cause it's a pretty insane machine.

  • 12:30:34

    WILLIAMSOkay. It's -- the Hinman Collator is a -- it was never mass-produced. It's a 450-pound behemoth of a apparatus that uses a strobe light and a beautiful Bausch & Lomb binocular scope to compare, side by side, two texts that should be identical but aren't quite. And what he did was -- Hinman decided that he could apply the methodology of astronomy.

  • 12:31:04

    WILLIAMSHe could use what's called a blink comparator that was reused by astronomers to see what had moved between two star fields. Famously, Pluto was discovered in 1929 using the blink comparator. Hinman decided, well, I can use this for -- my star fields are my two texts. He'll put them side by side. What moves, I will -- that will help identify what is.

  • 12:31:27

    WILLIAMSSo he was able to reduce the -- I think it was something like 40 years of manpower, of poring over these texts. He was able to deduce that to something like 18 months with this collator.

  • 12:31:40

    ROBERTSWell, it's remarkable to see. I mean, it's behind the velvet rope at the Folger. Have you actually looked in the binoculars?

  • 12:31:45

    WILLIAMSI have. I have. These days, most textural scholars will use a smaller version. They'll use the Lindstrand or the Haley's Comet or the McLeod Collator because those are portable, and they can take them on the road when they're going to whatever collection it is.

  • 12:31:59

    ROBERTSWell, also, how many of them are digitized? Can't you do it in a computer?

  • 12:32:04

    WILLIAMSYou could, I suppose. And the technology is rapidly keeping -- you know, it is catching up with those. Not too many have been digitized though. I think at the Folger, we have two different...

  • 12:32:16

    ROBERTSCopy Five.

  • 12:32:17

    WILLIAMSCopy Five...

  • 12:32:17

    ROBERTSCopy Five and this one, yeah.

  • 12:32:18

    WILLIAMSCopy Five and copy 68, I think, are -- happen to be and are freely available in our image database. They're at -- they're on the website. But the technology -- it takes a lot of effort and a lot money to digitize these. And they are, obviously, of course, very fragile. So that -- because we've already identified most of the differences between copies, I don't think there's a whole lot of call for that in the very near future.

  • 12:32:45

    ROBERTSWe are talking about Shakespeare's First Folio. Why do you think, audience, that Shakespeare still speaks to us almost 400 years after the folio was published in 1623 and his death in 1616? Join us, 800-433-8850, or email us, Given that there are little differences among the different copies -- yeah, Barbara Mowat?

  • 12:33:13

    MOWATYeah. Yes. You're asking how that happened?

  • 12:33:18


  • 12:33:18

    MOWATYeah, well, what happened is that, as they were printing the forms and the sheets of the First Folio, they would occasionally see something that needed to be corrected. We think -- these days, we now think that there was an awful lot of proofreading that went on that we don't have any record of because we only see, you know, what the result was.

  • 12:33:38


  • 12:33:39

    MOWATBut there is the occasional change when somebody spotted something as it was going through the press. And so they would stop the press and make the correction and then go on. But paper was so expensive that they didn't discard the ones that had the error in it. So that's why we have -- these are called stop-press corrections. And they are not -- most of them are not all that important.

  • 12:34:03

    MOWATYou know, Mrs. Folger thought that if we studied all of the copies of the First Folio, we would find huge secrets about Shakespeare. And it's a good thing she thought that because, you know, that's one of the reasons they got so many first folios. What we've learned is that the stop-press corrections rarely were anything that's particularly significant. But it helped us learn all kinds of things about what went on in the print shop.

  • 12:34:33

    MOWATSo it's lovely to know what the corrections are, and -- but I'm with Owen. I think it's very unlikely, if we were to collate the remaining 30-something, that we would find anything of great significance.

  • 12:34:48

    ROBERTSBut those distinctions also help you track them a little bit. I mean...

  • 12:34:51

    MOWATYes, very.

  • 12:34:52

    ROBERTSFor instance, in 2008, when -- this is an amazing story -- when someone showed up at the Folger door and said, is this a First Folio? You not only were able to say yes. You were able to figure out which one it was.

  • 12:35:03

    WILLIAMSWell, exactly. It -- you know, it's ironic that this eccentric Englishman, Raymond Scott, has done such a service to us for giving us an opportunity to talk more about the First Folio. He shows up at the Folger and asked for this copy to be authenticated, his First Folio. It was missing the so-called three grand leaves, the last leaf of the last play "Cymbeline," the verse that faces that iconic title page portrait.

  • 12:35:31

    WILLIAMSIt was missing those things, and so we had just the text block. The librarian, very quick thinking, Richard Kuhta, immediately said, well, of course, we can authenticate it, but I'll need to hold on to it for few days to do so. Yes, it's -- you know, it was -- it's -- the First Folio shares lots of similarities with the Second Folio. So there was a process, a little bit of "CSI" forensics, that had to be applied to this folio.

  • 12:35:59

    WILLIAMSIt's ironic that the -- whoever did steal this Folio -- and it was not proven in court that it was Mr. Scott -- didn't open the book because if they had, they would have noticed a wedge-shaped cutout through 13 of the leaves. That was the smoking gun that immediately identified this copy as the one that had been stolen from Durham in 1998.

  • 12:36:20

    ROBERTSDurham, England, not North Carolina.

  • 12:36:21


  • 12:36:22

    ROBERTSAnd Mr. Scott's in jail.

  • 12:36:25

    WILLIAMSHe is. He's serving eight years for handling stolen goods.

  • 12:36:28

    ROBERTSAnd in addition to just being sort of amazed that a First Folio walked through the door, do you, you know, immediately rush it to a vault? How fragile are they?

  • 12:36:38

    MOWATThis one was pretty fragile. It had been badly beat up over the years. It was missing -- yeah, it was missing its cover, and the pages were -- I mean, we all -- our hearts just ached when we looked at this poor little First Folio and what had been done to it. So, yes, it was, in fact, rushed into the vault. And it was kept there very, very carefully while all of the investigation was going on and the identification. And now it's back in Durham, which is lovely.

  • 12:37:10

    WILLIAMSAnd if I could just throw in a pitch for the care and handling of these books, the vault itself is the perfect place for these treasures to live. They -- you know, the humidity is perfectly controlled. It's below ground, no vibrations. In fact, during the recent earthquake, there were -- no book fell off the Folger shelf...

  • 12:37:30


  • 12:37:31

    WILLIAMS...which was pretty amazing.

  • 12:37:32

    ROBERTSAnd when people -- when scholars are allowed to access them, how much precaution do you have to take? Do you have to wear gloves? Do you have to...

  • 12:37:39

    WILLIAMSIt's -- the philosophy at the Folger is that we do not wear gloves to handle rare books because you can feel the pages better. You can feel the leaves between your fingers. We have a...

  • 12:37:50

    ROBERTSAnd so, therefore, you're more gentle because you're feeling it better?

  • 12:37:52

    WILLIAMSWell, it's just that you won't rip the page as you turn it. We have a world-class conservation lab there on site, which can repair any, any minor damage that happens, very rare though because we do have a vetting process. Those who are admitted as readers to the library, and that can be -- the readership group has recently opened up so that we actually have undergraduates in the reading room. They're able to have full access.

  • 12:38:19

    WILLIAMSThere's no partial reader at the Folger. Anyone who comes in, if they've requested an item that's not in the restricted class -- there are some unique items -- if they've asked for something that's not a restricted class, they're given access to it.

  • 12:38:32

    ROBERTSWe are talking about Shakespeare's First Folio with Owen Williams and Barbara Mowat of the Folger Shakespeare Library. And you can join us, 800-433-8850, or send us email, I'm Rebecca Roberts, filling in for Kojo Nnamdi. We'll be back after this quick break.

  • 12:40:31

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We are talking about the enduring influence and intrigue of Shakespeare's First Folio with Owen Williams. He is the assistant director of the Folger Institute. He's also the co-curator of an exhibit there now, "Fame, Fortune, Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio."

  • 12:40:48

    ROBERTSAnd Barbara Mowat, she is director of research emeritus at the Folger and co-editor of the Folger Shakespeare Library editions of Shakespeare's plays. And you can join us at 800-433-8850, or send us email, And, Barbara Mowat, we have an email from Ariel in Washington, D.C. He says, "What percentage of Shakespeare's work can we be certain was his? By the way, I was named after a character in 'The Tempest.'"

  • 12:41:14

    MOWATA very interesting character, so that's lovely. In some ways, that question can go in two directions. It can go in the direction of, did Shakespeare really write these plays? And I will just give a quick answer to that, that is that I believe he did. But there's also the question of, how much might be the work of other people? How much did he collaborate with other people?

  • 12:41:43

    MOWATAnd most -- many people today are on the side of thinking that there was collaboration, co-writing with some of the very early plays, the -- at least a couple of the "Henry VI" history plays. And then you have a case, like "Macbeth," where there is a song in there that was written for a Middleton play after Shakespeare's death or certainly later than "Macbeth" was first acted.

  • 12:42:14

    MOWATAnd so people have argued that Middleton revised "Macbeth" after Shakespeare died. All of this kind of study of the plays is, at this particular moment, is a very hot topic, is, how much was -- how collaborative was Shakespeare in his work? How much should we see the work of Middleton, Fletcher in collaboration with Shakespeare?

  • 12:42:45

    MOWATI don't know that we can ever definitively prove this. People are working on it using stylometrics, using various kinds of -- other kinds of statistical methods. And at the moment, I think, it's kind of up in the air. Some people think a lot of the collaboration has been proved. Maybe I'm not a very good statistician, but it seems to me that we still have a way to go.

  • 12:43:12

    ROBERTSOwen Williams.

  • 12:43:13

    WILLIAMSI would just add that it was his fellow actors who, in a way, were the prime movers of this First Folio of Shakespeare. So I think in some ways, we have to take their word for it, that, at least, it -- you know, it passed the sniff test. These were attributable to this fellow actor of theirs, who was an instrumental part in their company.

  • 12:43:35

    ROBERTSLet's take a call from Malcolm in Bethesda, Md. Malcolm, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:43:40

    MALCOLMThank you very much. I have two related questions. First, what can you tell us about the two very different versions of "King Lear" and how the Folger Library edition treats them?

  • 12:43:55

    ROBERTSBarbara Mowat.

  • 12:43:57

    MOWATActually, Malcolm, they're not that very different. They are basically the same play. There are speeches that are assigned to different people in the two versions. There are some other things that differ, but it's not as different as people might be led to believe. What we did in that play is we chose the folio text as our basic text.

  • 12:44:27

    MOWATAnd when there was stuff that seemed to have been left out of the folio version, we -- if we included something from the quarto, again, we marked it with brackets. But this is the play that has got -- received the most interest and the most publicity about being different, and -- so that you will find publishers these days who will publish the folio "Lear" and then publish the quarto "Lear." Does that answer your question?

  • 12:45:00

    ROBERTSI think he's off the line.

  • 12:45:02


  • 12:45:02

    ROBERTSDo you -- these on-going questions about whether Shakespeare was the only author, whether it was a collaboration of these different versions, why do you think they persist? Is it just because it's amazing to think one man came up with all of this extraordinary literature?

  • 12:45:16

    MOWATI think that's a lot of it. It's very hard to believe in -- that Shakespeare really existed and that he wrote all of these plays. It's just -- they are so remarkable. And I -- so I think that's a lot of it. And I also think there are -- his background was such that it makes people doubt that he could have done this. You know, they want it to be a nobleman or somebody with a different kind of education than he had.

  • 12:45:46

    MOWATSo some of it is -- the same kind of thing, I think, you have going on in the art world with Rembrandts. You know, you want to get in there and make sure that every stroke was actually Rembrandt's stroke. So it falls into that category, for me, of just wanting to make sure that this thing that we adore really is credited to the right person.

  • 12:46:09

    ROBERTSLet's hear from Jeannie (sp?) in Silver Spring. Jeannie, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:46:13

    JEANNIEHello, there. I wanted to know if anybody really did come up with a definitive answer of how many printing shops actually printed the First Folio. I know it was farmed out to different groups.

  • 12:46:29

    ROBERTSOwen Williams, how much do we know about the printing?

  • 12:46:31

    WILLIAMSWell, we do know quite a bit from the work -- I would refer you to the work of Peter Blayney and Charlton Hinman, especially, and W.W. Greg would be the masters in this field. Just as you said, there was a syndicate of printers who -- to whom this text was farmed out as a way of spreading the risk of what wasn't at all a sure thing.

  • 12:46:57

    WILLIAMSThese publishers were taking an enormous chance at putting -- and put in an enormous amount of capital, simply in the purchase of the paper on which these copies we're printed. In fact, it was -- we know, from the work of those scholars I mentioned, that several large-format books were going through the presses at the same time.

  • 12:47:20

    WILLIAMSSo while the printers on the colophon of Shakespeare would certainly be the likely candidates for the print houses that were integral to its production, we don't know, precisely, that sort of thing.

  • 12:47:41

    ROBERTSJeannie, thank you for your call, and Malcolm in Bethesda actually is back on the line with us. Malcolm, sorry we lost you earlier. Did Barbara Mowat answer your question about "King Lear?"

  • 12:47:51

    MALCOLMNow, I have a quick question -- yes, she did. She was wonderful. I have a quick -- another quick question. What is the current verdict on the play "Cordonio?" (sic)

  • 12:48:01

    MOWATOh, "Cardenio." The -- that's -- let's see, where do I start with that one? That is a play that people think Shakespeare collaborated in writing, probably with Fletcher. They think they know the plot, but the play has never been found. There's not a trace of it. But people look at what they think was the source material and have been trying to kind of draft a play that would be like what Shakespeare might have written.

  • 12:48:35

    MOWATSo, I think, the verdict on that is we have the name of the play. We have some idea about what was in it. And, as far as any kind of real evidence is concerned, that's -- I think that's about it.

  • 12:48:49

    ROBERTSMalcolm, thank you for your call. Does that just kill you, the idea that there might be a lost Shakespeare play out there?

  • 12:48:54

    MOWATOh, well, we've always thought there might be some lost Shakespeare plays out there. You know, there was one named "Love's Labour's Won" that was listed in 1598 as one of Shakespeare's plays. And if that was a separate -- if there was play by that name, it's gone. I think a lot of people think it was just a separate name for one of the comedies that he had already written that had a happy ending.

  • 12:49:20

    WILLIAMSSo some kind of subtitle that would -- has since dropped out of the record.

  • 12:49:24

    MOWATPossibly, yeah. An alternate title, yeah.

  • 12:49:26

    ROBERTSWe have an email from Joan in Arlington, who says, "Does the Folger carbon-date its rare books?"

  • 12:49:32

    WILLIAMSIt does not. It does not. And probably more important for the history of books and the kind of current co-scholarships that has been done on it would be the carbon dating of the handwritten annotations in the margins. Folger famously did not need the cleanest copy of whatever text he was pursuing.

  • 12:49:52

    WILLIAMSHe left those work to -- those particular copies to a certain Henry Huntington who was -- who wanted only the best copies, the cleanest copies that could be found on the market. But it's lucky for us today, as scholars, that we have the recorded reading practices in the form of the handwritten annotations in the margins of these books.

  • 12:50:15

    WILLIAMSSo we can often have -- you know, get a pretty good guess, due to the stylistics of the hand in the margin, around when a -- you know, when a reader was marking that text. But, no, we don't yet do much carbon dating of the works themselves.

  • 12:50:35

    ROBERTSWell, the marginalia is really interesting. I mean, some of it is annotations for performance, you know, their acting notes.

  • 12:50:41

    WILLIAMSMm hmm. They did their prompt -- yeah, prompt copies, right.

  • 12:50:44

    ROBERTSAnd some of them seem to be just a reader's notes to himself?

  • 12:50:48

    JEANNIEMm hmm. Mm hmm. Yeah, there -- it's amazing to -- you know, to see what has engaged the minds of previous generations. And it's probably the most useful annotations that I've seen in conjunction with the exhibition, where the ones on Folger's own copy of a census of First Folios in which he said, okay -- he was tracking these folios and so that he could purchase them.

  • 12:51:17

    WILLIAMSAnd so he said, okay, this copy has moved. This one is not nearly as good as has been reported by its owner, that sort of thing. So those -- that gets us at the heart of a major book collector and what it was he was after.

  • 12:51:30

    ROBERTSWell, that -- so that census, the 1905 one, is the one you're referring to…

  • 12:51:33

    WILLIAMSExactly. Well, the (word?) census, yes.

  • 12:51:34

    ROBERTS...where they inventoried all the known copies and where they were and what sort of condition they were in. And it seems that Folger basically used it as a catalog. I mean, he then wrote to a bunch of those people, saying, can I buy your copy?

  • 12:51:47

    WILLIAMSExactly. He used this as his finding list, his finding aid for what it was that he was after next. Interestingly, we know that the compiler of this census, Sir Sydney Lee, wrote to Folger on at least five or six occasions and never received a reply. So, again, Folger was being very -- playing it very close to the vest in terms of what he had and what he wanted.

  • 12:52:12

    ROBERTSHmm. So for someone who relied on that census, he did not participate in it.

  • 12:52:15

    WILLIAMSNot a bit.

  • 12:52:17

    ROBERTSAnd the marginalia, some of it is lost, right, 'cause sometimes when these books were resold, the publisher would bleach them or clean up the pages and rebind it?

  • 12:52:26

    MOWATYeah, or trim them, and things would disappear. But it was the bleaching, I think, that was the -- did the most damage to the marginalia.

  • 12:52:34

    WILLIAMSAnd once a new owner had this book, and especially in the 19th century, they would want to put their own mark on it, put it between the -- you know, the covers, the boards, that would reflect the grandeur of this work. In order to do that, you have to -- it has to be disbound, cleaned and then sewn back together. Oftentimes, the edges of the page were shaved at that point before they were re-gilded. We've lost valuable information.

  • 12:52:59

    ROBERTSAnd is that one of the reasons that those three pages -- the Ben Jonson verse, the portrait, and the last page assembly -- are such the Holy Grail 'cause those are the ones that fall off when you open it?

  • 12:53:08

    WILLIAMSThe three grand leaves -- no. Usually, the rebinders are very careful to preserve those. Those are -- it's just the vicissitudes of time that the last leaf and the first two are the least protected of those copies. They originally -- you know, these copies were originally sold unbound or in a limp vellum or paper, or something like that, so that the new owner could put his, usually, mark on what the First Folio should be.

  • 12:53:34

    ROBERTSAnd some of the copies have facsimile corrections in them, which wasn't an intent to fraud, right? It was just to clean them up.

  • 12:53:41

    WILLIAMSRight. During -- in the exhibition, we have a famous facsimilist, pen-and-ink facsimilist named John Harris, who was so good at correcting -- you know, filling in the letters that have been lost to either worm damage or whatever, water damage or whatever, it was that sometimes he himself could not tell what he had touched up.

  • 12:54:01

    ROBERTSYeah, I mean, it's -- in the exhibit, it's blown up enormously, just to see the difference, but it's -- you need that scale in order to detect the difference.

  • 12:54:07

    WILLIAMSYou do, you do. We're lucky that he signed some of the things that he fixed.

  • 12:54:11

    ROBERTSRight. Which goes to show you he wasn't trying to fool anyone.

  • 12:54:13

    WILLIAMSNo. No, no.

  • 12:54:14

    ROBERTSYou know, he's proud of his work.

  • 12:54:15

    WILLIAMSHe was, and he should be.

  • 12:54:16

    ROBERTSSo if somebody is sort of looking to see what distinguishes a First Folio from either a second, third, fourth folio or a facsimile copy, how do you know you're looking at the real article? Are there benchmarks that you need to check?

  • 12:54:34

    WILLIAMSWell, if your last name is not Scott, I would just drop by the Folger and bring this along with you.

  • 12:54:40

    WILLIAMSBut I've led a number of tours in conjunction with this exhibition. I've been thrilled to meet the public. You know, they don't let me out often from the research division. But the questions have been great. And one of the best ones was, do we think there are many folios still out there?

  • 12:54:55


  • 12:54:55

    WILLIAMSMy co-curator has identified -- Anthony -- I'm sorry -- Anthony James West of Kent has identified 232 copies, which, I think -- you know, we think that's probably all there are out there.

  • 12:55:06


  • 12:55:07

    WILLIAMSBut we never know. We never know. When "Antique Roadshow" shows up somewhere, we never know what exactly is going to happen next, what might be presented and might be authentic.

  • 12:55:18

    ROBERTSAnd, Barbara Mowat, why do you think it's still so compelling? Why do you think people are still so caught up in the story of the First Folio?

  • 12:55:25

    MOWATNot -- you're not asking about caught up in Shakespeare, but about the First...

  • 12:55:29

    ROBERTSNo, the books. Yeah.

  • 12:55:30

    MOWAT...the First Folio.

  • 12:55:31

    ROBERTSAlthough I'm curious about the Shakespeare question, too.

  • 12:55:33


  • 12:55:35

    MOWATIt's just a -- it's a remarkable book. When you look at it, the fact that the paper is still so lovely, that you can read it so clearly, that it's 400 years old, and yet there it is. And there are the words that we know from the stage, and yet there they are, spelled funny, but still -- and they're the characters that we know -- I mean, those characters are so alive.

  • 12:56:03

    MOWATAnd to be able to go back to the book where -- with many of them, this is the first time people could read these texts, and there they are. I mean, there is "Macbeth," and there is Lady Macbeth. Or there is Viola in "Twelfth Night," and, I think, our heart just leaps when we see that. I know that is certainly true for me.

  • 12:56:28

    MOWATAnd everybody that I have ever shown a First Folio to are almost speechless in the presence of this. I mean, it's almost as if you've gone back to the beginning of something really wonderful.

  • 12:56:42

    ROBERTSOwen Williams, do you have...

  • 12:56:44

    WILLIAMSI just want to say Barbara spoke earlier about the aura of this book. And I just wanted to mention that, I think, there's only one book that is comparable in the history of English history that -- you know, that could be mentioned in the same breath, and that's the King James Version of the Bible. Those two, you know...

  • 12:57:04

    ROBERTSCelebrating its 400th anniversary this year.

  • 12:57:06

    WILLIAMSExactly. In fact, we're going to be hosting an exhibition on it in conjunction with the Bodleian Library and the Harry Ransom Center this fall between those two books. We have, you know, a wellspring of what becomes the English language in so many ways that we still recognize today.

  • 12:57:25

    ROBERTSWell, I want to just end this conversation with a brief clip of some lines we would not know if not for the First Folio. This is Ian McKellen, famous Shakespearean actor in "Macbeth."

  • 12:58:15

    ROBERTSIan McKellen in the 1979 television version of the Trevor Nunn production of the Royal Shakespeare Company of "Macbeth," lines we would not have if we did not have the First Folio. Thank you, Owen Williams and Barbara Mowat of the Folger Shakespeare Library for coming in and sharing it with us.

  • 12:58:29

    WILLIAMSThank you for having us.

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