Shakespeare: Background

What is the First Folio and
how is it useful?

What is the First Folio and how is it useful? The First Folio is an 'acting text' of William Shakespeare's plays, published in 1623 by Hemmings and Condell, two members of Shakespeare's acting company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men. It provides a close version of the plays as Shakespeare wrote them and indicates how they were acted at the time of publication.

Shakespeare, himself an actor, coded the text in the First Folio (in a similar way in which a composer codes a music score). His unique use of punctuation, rhythm choices, poetic conceits (especially repetition), plus a combination of familiar story-lines and history, enabled the actors to know their given circumstances in a quick and concise manner so that they might make choices appropriate to the world of the play.

Unfortunately, over the years, editors and scholars have altered what Shakespeare wrote in order to conform to more literary and modern grammatical rules and standards. In doing so, they have often changed these very important clues. And, as a result, many today find Shakespeare incomprehensible and paraphrasing text has become an actor's tool. But how does one truly act a paraphrase without substantially watering down a moment? And why edit a playwright's text in the first place since a play is to be acted and not read? As a musical composer notates a composition to let musicians know range, tempo, pacing, etc, so does the playwright. Therefore it makes sense for actors to look at the early versions of Shakespeare in order to glean all of the givens of the play from the acting clues.

For information regarding access to The First Folio or any unedited Quartos, please see the Links and Resources Page.

Copyrighted material. For permission to use any of the above, please contact April Feld Sandor at (215) 882-2600 or