Wadham’s four Shakespeare folios

18th February 2019


Wadham’s extraordinary collection of the first four Shakespeare folios are the subject of a series of short films featuring Oxford’s Professor of Shakespeare studies, Emma Smith.

Play Wadham Image - all-four_0

The books, bequeathed to the College in 1775 by former student Richard Warner, were all published after Shakespeare’s death, in 1616. Emma explains the meaning of the word folio - a piece of paper, of varying sizes, folded in half once.

The First Folio, published in 1623 comprises 36 plays, bound in a large volume. Compiled by two of Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors, the book was published by Edward Blount. The publication marks an important moment in the history of printed drama, says Emma, in a substantial book worthy of serious attention and intellectual study.

Play Second folio

The Second Folio, published in 1632 by Thomas Cotes, bears many similarities to the first with a similar title page, and comprising the same plays. 

However, it has been carefully edited since the First Folio, slightly updating the language and sometimes, the metre. Mythological and classical terms have been corrected, as have foreign languages. It is between the First and Second Folios that the most intervention in the language has taken place.

Play Third Folio

The Third Folio followed in 1663 with the same title page and a third publisher, Philip Chetwind. This edition adds seven new plays in a section at the end, six of which are not thought to be by Shakespeare.

The third folio is possibly the rarest of all the folios because of a shortage of stocks which may have been lost to the great fire of London. Today scholars believe that only one of the seven new plays in this edition, Pericles, was all or partly written by Shakespeare. Emma talks about the imperfections of old books, highlighting two neatly handwritten pages in this folio which must have escaped the printing process and gone unnoticed when the book was bound. At a later date the correct text was added by hand, following the style of the book as closely as possible. She also highlights the ghostly image of Shakespeare that emerges from the second title page in the book and speculates about how it might have got there.

Play From the fourth folio

The Fourth Folio of 1685, published by Herringman, also contains the additional plays presented in a similar format in a large ‘serious' book. 

Emma explains that the fourth folio marks the end of the publishing of the plays in this format as in the 18th century, the plays become available in more readable, domestic volumes, each containing a small series of plays.

“This is an absolutely extraordinary collection”, comments Emma. They have been read, annotated and doodled upon and things have been spilled on them, so they have their own history. But they have not been rebound or had the pages washed. Some of the annotations can be attributed to Richard Warner, the Wadham student who collected these books while he was writing a commentary of Shakespeare’s language, she adds. “They are a completely wonderful treasure of the College,” she concludes.

University of Oxford Professor of Shakespeare Studies Emma Smith is a Fellow of Hertford College and has been a Lecturer in the Faculty of English since 1997.

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