Printing the First Folio

4th March 2021


Former Wadham Research Associate Dr John Miles describes the process behind the printing of Shakespeare's First Folio, in a new short film from Wadham Library.

Play Dr John Miles

From the number of typesetters needed to print each page to the detection of urine (used to clean the printing press) in the ink, Dr Miles provides a detailed description of the Wadham First Folio.

The First Folio was published in 1623, some seven years after the Shakespeare’s death in 1616. As a result, “We don’t know how much Shakespeare wanted or consented to his plays being put together in a collection,” says John.

”The tradition of putting folios of works together were thought of as “monuments to the playwrights and to the authors,” he adds.

The First Folio claimed to be the first time Shakespeare’s plays had been bound together in one volume but actually, a previous edition (now known as the False Folio) was created in 1619 by William Jaggard. Interestingly, it was to Jaggard that Shakespeare’s friends went when they put together this edition.

John describes the vast entrepreneurial effort of creating this volume, with thousands of characters being set out by the typesetters in the printing press for each page of the book and necessitating a print run of more than 500 books in order to break even.

“It is a book put together with longevity in mind, with the plays divided into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies for the first time” he says.

In some ways the book is inferior to later copies because it is printed on rag paper which would have been sourced from across Europe, following bad cotton harvests.

“Like most other books of this time, the ink has been tested and found [to contain] traces of compositors’ urine” he adds, explaining that the contents of the pot used by the printers during the day would be used to clean the press.

“What I found interesting about this book is that it is a compendium, not just of stories contained within the book but stories outside it,” says John

Spelling preferences, compositor errors, the missing Romeo and Juliet prologue, the absent Henry V chorus, and other discrepancies particular to this volume are highlighted in this short film produced by Wadham College Library.

  • Poems dedicated to Shakespeare in the Wadham First Folio

    Poems dedicated to Shakespeare in the Wadham First Folio

  • Pages from the Shakespeare First Folio

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