400 years after its publication, the First Folio remains our primary witness to the authentic works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). When the playwright died at age 52, versions of only 19 of his individual plays, two substantial poems, and a single volume of sonnets had been published, all in handy quarto format. In 1623, the scattered texts of 36 plays, recently available in quarto or lingering in now-lost handwritten drafts or copies, were gathered by his friends into a folio edition “published according to the true originall copies.” Eighteen newly published plays, including Macbeth, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, and The Winter’s Tale, otherwise would have been lost to posterity.

Reflecting upon the enduring legacy of the First Folio and other Shakespearean editions, including Princeton’s earliest Shakespeare quarto (1598) and the Poems of 1640, this section looks back on Ben Jonson’s connection to the actor/playwright and explores different ways in which readers of subsequent centuries have engaged with their personal “Shakespeares.”

William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. London: Isaac Iaggard and Edward Blount, 1623.The family of William Augustus White, LLD. Hon. 1926.

The First Folio was the first book of its kind: a folio publication devoted exclusively to plays. On the title page Shakespeare takes center stage by means of a large engraved portrait that faces Ben Jonson’s laudatory verses “to the reader.” Devised by members of Shakespeare’s company, this bold gesture affirmed that the late playwright (a man of modest standing in Elizabethan society) was worthy of enduring readership and memory.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. London: Isaac Iaggard and Edward Blount, 1623. William H. Scheide, Class of 1936.

Setting the Stage: The First Folio introduces each play with its title in large typeface, act and scene numeration, and a prompt for the first players to enter – but no indication of setting. And yet, only ten lines into The Tragedie of Hamlet, readers know that a nervous changing of the guard has broken the frigid silence of the midnight watch. Soon follows a chilling stage direction, “Enter the Ghost.”

William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. London: Isaac Iaggard and Edward Blount, 1623. William H. Scheide, Class of 1936.

Signed in 1791 by Judge William Parker, Jr. (1731–1813) of Exeter, New Hampshire, this was the first copy of the First Folio to reach America. The book passed to Parker’s son Samuel, a devotee of Boston’s theater scene, then to his daughter Rebecca. In 1864, she gave it to her nephew Amos Prescott Baker, who invited eminent actors such as Edwin Booth and Fanny Janauschek to inscribe its blank pages.

Ben Jonson (1572–1637). The Workes of Beniamin Jonson. London: William Stansby, 1616.

An essential precursor of Shakespeare’s First Folio, the Workes of Ben Jonson (1616) featured nine plays alongside the courtlier, less commercial literary genres of poems, epigrams, and masques. On the exhibited left-hand page, the list of players who performed in the 1598 premier of Jonson’s comedy Every Man in his Humour begins with “Will Shakespeare.” Princeton’s copy bears handwritten verses that Jonson inscribed to another of his friends, Alexander Glover.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616). A Pleasant conceited comedie called Loves Labours Lost. London: William White for Cuthbert Burby, 1598. Donald L. Maggin, Class of 1948.

Before the Queen: This first edition of Love’s Labour’s Lost exemplifies the quarto format in which Elizabethan plays originally appeared. The title page, the earliest to bear Shakespeare’s name, pitches the comedy as a revised version, “As it was presented before her Highnes this last Christmas. Newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespere.” The attribution to Shakespeare is unquestionable: no one falsified the authorship of plays performed for Elizabeth I.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Poems. London: Thomas Cotes, sold by John Benson, 1640. Cyrus H. McCormick, Class of 1879.

This pocket-sized collection of Shakespeare’s complete poetic works was preceded by a rare 1609 edition of his Sonnets. Many of these poems introduce significant revisions, while the male subjects of several were reworked as feminine, presumably to conform to societal expectations. The legend beneath the engraved frontispiece portrait celebrates the long-deceased poet laureate as the “Soule of th’age … the wonder of the stage,” whose fame will live on forever.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Poems. London: Thomas Cotes… sold by John Benson, 1640. Robert H. Taylor, Class of 1930.

Shakespeare’s sonnet on the “marriage of true minds” remains compelling and universal more than four centuries hence. Not concerned with unrequited or idealized love (as was the norm), it endeavors instead to define what true love is – and always remains – over time, across distance, through hardship, even unto death. Shakespeare’s final couplet offers a challenge to disbelievers, in that the truthfulness of his poetry was a precondition of its existence.

William Dickinson (after George Romney). Portrait of Benedetta Ramus. Mezzotint on paper. [London, ca. 1779].

Her Shakespeare: In 1777, Benedetta Ramus (1753–1811) sat for a portrait painted by George Romney, reproduced here in a contemporary print. The daughter of a senior page to George III, Ramus chose to address family, friends, visitors, and posterity in a pensive mood, chin resting on her smartly bound fourth volume of The Plays of William Shakespeare, edited by Samuel Johnson (London, 1765). Her book’s current whereabouts are unknown.

John Keats (1795–1821). Autograph letter to his brothers George and Thomas Keats. Southampton, 15 April 1817. Robert H. Taylor, Class of 1930.

The young poet John Keats purchased a pocket-sized “Shakespeare in Seven Volumes” to read during his journey to the Isle of Wight in April 1817. Before departing from Southampton, he wrote to his brothers: “I felt rather lonely this morning at breakfast so I went and unbox’d a Shakespeare – ‘There’s my Comfort’.” Here Keats compares a Shakespearean reading to Stephano’s consoling drink in The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 2