The book in the flesh, the playwright in print. Image: Stephen Chung / Alamy

My first folio

What is it like to encounter a copy of this famous book in real life? We set off to find one—or eight
November 1, 2023

A guard is stationed next to the First Folio at all times, but no one has tried to run off with it yet. He shrugs. “It’s only been 45 minutes.” Punters at Firsts, a rare book fair in London’s Saatchi Gallery, hover near the Folio, sipping champagne and trying to think of something brilliant to say. “I think I have one of those in Penguin paperback,” comments a man. A young woman declares she feels “quite touched”. One man tells a long story about his Shakespeare reading club. Several people debate whether the playwright will ever be “cancelled”. Hundreds are here. It seems unlikely.

Peter Harrington Rare Books has recently sold the Folio to an unnamed buyer. Pom Harrington (son of Peter) is glowing. “To sell a First Folio is unquestionably one of the highlights of any bookselling career,” he says. “As an English dealer, in the English language it starts with Shakespeare. I mean, it’s a proper career highlight—one for the memoirs.” The sale price is undisclosed. “I can tell you that it was listed at £6.25m, and a sale has been agreed,” Pom says enigmatically.

I’ve never seen a Folio before. The book sits behind glass, open on the pages of Martin Droeshout’s famous portrait of the balding bard and Ben Jonson’s poem, imploring the reader to “looke / Not on his Picture, but his Booke.” Eighteen plays would not have survived without it, but the book, a little yellowed and smudged, is underwhelming.

People have paid up to $9.9m for a First Folio. Today, Peter Harrington is displaying the First, Second, Third (particularly rare) and Fourth Folios—the first time since the 1990s that a dealer has had all four together at once. Collecting them took about two years, Peter Harrington’s Adam Douglas tells me. “I’ve had the Second Folio many times before, but there’s something really different about the First Folio,” he says. “It’s just the magic of it.” There are only 235 known remaining First Folios, out of the roughly 750 originally printed in 1623. Eighty-two copies are in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, and there are 50 in the UK—at universities, theatres, libraries and private collections.

The book, a little yellowed and smudged, is underwhelming

I wonder whether seeing more than one First Folio at once will inspire greater awe, so I visit Christie’s auction house, which is displaying six for a 400th anniversary exhibition—the largest display of First Folios ever gathered in this country. All six are lit up in one room. On one copy, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, a 19th-century scholar, has scrawled his name at the top of The Tempest.

Christie’s international head of books Margaret Ford has sold seven First Folios in six years (“I think that may be a record for at least a century”). We retreat to a private room of the auction house and she tells me about some reactions she’s seen. “There was a woman who was just ecstatic,” she says. “She would just go from one copy to another and say, ‘This is just magical, this is amazing, I’m so happy, this is incredible. I’m going to have to come back again and again and again.’”

Like me, Ford was disappointed when she first saw a Folio many years ago. “I remember going up to it and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s it’,” she says. “It just looked kind of ordinary.”

“When it was printed in 1623, it was a book like other books. And yes, it had a special status… but, essentially, it was a book, to be read, to be bought and sold.”

I ask her why some people are so ready and willing to be overwhelmed by the sight of the book. “It’s because of the art they’re projecting onto it, as much as the book itself,” she believes. “Without the First Folio we would not have 18 of Shakespeare’s plays—that’s essentially half of his entire output… some of his greatest plays. And that’s almost impossible to imagine.”

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank has a Folio too—the “Munro” edition, after the family that owned it until nearly a century ago. The book doesn’t feel like the theatre’s main attraction: the receptionist isn’t sure where it’s kept. “I think it’s in the shop—I might be wrong. Don’t hold me to that!” she calls over as I head away from the front desk.

Turns out, it’s next to a mannequin wearing an Elizabeth I costume and facing T-shirts that read “Though she be but little, she is fierce”, hanging above some toy daggers. A children’s group mill around. They’re more interested in the daggers. In a few hours, Macbeth will play to a sold-out audience. Without the First Folio, that wouldn’t be possible.