The Legacy of Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Test of Time
November 8, 2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s iconic “First Folio” – the first collected edition of the Bard’s plays and a pivotal moment in literary history. Without this seminal volume, nearly 20 of Shakespeare’s works including Hamlet, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night may have been lost.
The First Folio’s publication in 1623 was a watershed event. Compiled by Shakespeare’s fellow actors seven years after his death, the folio featured 36 plays, categorized as comedies, histories and tragedies. It preserved texts believed to be drawn from Shakespeare’s original manuscripts and provided an authoritative foundation for all future study. With its large “folio” format, engraved portrait of Shakespeare, introductory material and meticulous editing, the First Folio was treated as a major statement cementing Shakespeare’s reputation. Only around 235 complete copies survive today, making the book exceedingly rare and valuable.
Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies
by William Shakespeare
This backstory underscores why the First Folio is considered such an indispensable part of our cultural heritage – not just a remarkable book, but a treasure that has shaped literary history. Which raises the question: 400 years from now, which books published today might we still be reading and appreciating?
What books published today will humans still be reading in 400 years?
Predicting literary longevity isn’t easy. But certain qualities – innovative writing, universal themes and cultural impact – can give a book staying power across generations. Modern works like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Paulo Coelho‘s The Alchemist and others have already demonstrated importance in today’s culture. Their imaginative storytelling and resonance with broad audiences make them strong candidates to be read centuries from now.
Other factors that might keep a contemporary book vital include: profound philosophy, political influence, groundbreaking science or an innovative structure. Coming-of-age stories could also retain timeless appeal. And genres like mystery and romance can’t be discounted – popular works once considered “lowbrow” have before risen to literary heights.
Ultimately, the test of time is the only true judge. But in an ever-changing world, books with indelible style, visionary ideas and universal themes seem poised to stand that test and remain meaningful across the centuries. Like Shakespeare’s First Folio, such works constitute the classics of our era – the legacy we pass to future generations. And 400 years from now, readers may still marvel at their enduring power.
Shakespeare’s First Folio – Annotated Contents
To John Heminges and Henry Condell, esteemed editors of the First Folio, commemorated at Bassishaw, London.
- The Tempest * – Manuscript by Ralph Crane.
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona * – Transcript by Ralph Crane.
- The Merry Wives of Windsor – Transcript by Ralph Crane.
- Measure for Measure * – Likely Ralph Crane transcript.
- The Comedy of Errors * – Shakespeare’s working draft with minimal notes.
- Much Ado About Nothing – Based on the quarto edition with annotations.
- Love’s Labour’s Lost – Corrected version of the first quarto.
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Well-annotated second quarto, possibly a prompt-book.
- The Merchant of Venice – Lightly edited first quarto.
- As You Like It * – Quality manuscript with prompter’s notes.
- The Taming of the Shrew * – Annotated working draft of Shakespeare.
- All’s Well That Ends Well * – Possibly Shakespeare’s working draft.
- Twelfth Night * – Based on a prompt-book or its transcript.
- The Winter’s Tale * – Transcript by Ralph Crane.
- King John * – Source uncertain, possibly a prompt-book.
- Richard II – Combination of the third and fifth quartos, corrected.
- Henry IV, Part 1 – Edited fifth quarto.
- Henry IV, Part 2 – Mixture of manuscript and quarto sources.
- Henry V – Shakespeare’s working draft.
- Henry VI, Part 1 * – Annotated transcript of the author’s manuscript.
- Henry VI, Part 2 – Likely a manuscript used as a prompt-book.
- Henry VI, Part 3 – Similar to Part 2.
- Richard III – A complex mix of various quartos and a manuscript.
- Henry VIII * – A fair copy of the authors’ manuscript.
- Troilus and Cressida – Quarto corrected with working draft, inserted out of sequence.
- Coriolanus * – High-quality authorial transcript.
- Titus Andronicus – Possibly a prompt-book version of the third quarto.
- Romeo and Juliet – Essentially a reprint of the third quarto.
- Timon of Athens * – Working draft or transcript thereof.
- Julius Caesar * – Based on a prompt-book or its transcript.
- Macbeth * – Likely a prompt-book for an adapted indoor performance.
- Hamlet – A complex combination of the second quarto and manuscripts.
- King Lear – Mainly the first quarto, cross-referenced with the second and a prompt-book.
- Othello – Based on the first quarto, corrected with a manuscript.
- Antony and Cleopatra * – Possibly working drafts or their transcripts.
- Cymbeline * – Possibly a Ralph Crane transcript or an official prompt-book.
Note on Troilus and Cressida: This play was added to the tragedies section after an initial omission due to rights issues.
Plays marked with an asterisk () indicate those that were first published in the First Folio.*