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Shakespeare’s First Folio

Discover the remarkable book.

Portrait of Shakespeare
Image of Shakespeare from the First Folio (RCIN 1047467) ©

2023 marked the 400th anniversary of the First Folio's publication, with celebrations, events and exhibitions taking place around the world.

What is Shakespeare’s First Folio?

The First Folio is the first printed collection of William Shakespeare’s plays. It was produced in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death when his friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, collected all his plays together, including ones which had never been published before.

The folio contains 36 of Shakespeare's works. Without this book we would probably not have any texts of 18 of Shakespeare's most important plays, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night and The Tempest. Around 235 copies of the First Folio survive today, with 50 in the UK.

The First Folio in the Royal Collection (RCIN 1047467)©

The Royal Library

A copy of the First Folio exists in The Royal Library at Windsor Castle, as part of the Royal Collection. This copy is what is known as a sophisticated copy, that is, one made up of pages from multiple copies. It was acquired by George IV, when Prince of Wales, for his personal library at Carlton House in London. This library was transferred to Windsor by the 1830s as one of the foundation collections of the present Royal Library.

Charles I's handwriting in the Royal Library's Second Folio (RCIN 1080415)©

Three other editions followed in 1632, 1663/64 and 1685, known as the Second, Third and Fourth Folios. The Royal Library contains copies of the Second and Third Folios.

Charles I read the copy of the Second Folio while imprisoned at Windsor Castle during the English Civil Wars, in the days before he was put on trial and executed in 1649. Inside it you can see his handwriting where he wrote ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, Latin for ‘while I breathe, I hope’.

Watch our film to find out more.

Shakespeare’s Folios in the Royal Library ©

The income from your ticket contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of The Royal Collection Trust are the care and conservation of the Royal Collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational activities.