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Why the first folio matters

Shakespeare'sFirst Folio is in Mumbai. Here are four reasons you should see it for yourself

The First Folio on display includes 36 of the 37 plays attributed to Shakespeare.
The First Folio on display includes 36 of the 37 plays attributed to Shakespeare.

The First Folio, the earliest printed collection of a large part of the Shakespearean canon, was published in 1623, seven years after the writer’s death. Though some of the plays were published earlier, the First Folio is probably the closest we’ll get to reading them in their original form.

A copy of the Folio—a royal one, no less, from the collection of King George III—is on display at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai till 8 March. Visitors can study the last page of Titus Andronicus and the first page of Romeo And Juliet (the famous prologue to the latter is absent—one of the most recognizable differences between a Folio play and a version published earlier). Here’s why the First Folio is one of the most important publications in literature.

‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Macbeth’ might not have existed without it

The Folio was the first time nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays—36 out of an attributed 37—were collected and published in one volume. Before this, 18 plays had been published as quartos (pamphlets). Plays that were published for the first time in the Folio included Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Tempest and As You Like It.

It was put together by people who had been part of the original productions

The First Folio was edited by John Heminges and Henry Condell, actors in King’s Men, Shakespeare’s theatrical company. They had seen the plays performed, and added to and modified by the author, placing them in a better position than most to compile an authoritative version from existing “good" quartos and manuscripts like prompt books and working drafts.

It has driven the way we experience Shakespeare

The Folio divides the plays into comedies, tragedies and histories. Even today, this remains the most widely accepted categorization of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The Folio also contains clues to how the plays ought to be performed. Several theatre troupes use the Folio versions—with their Elizabethan-era capitalization and punctuation—as performance texts instead of the modern versions of the plays.

It’s one of our only clues to what Shakespeare looked like

The instantly familiar portrait of Shakespeare on the title page is by Martin Droeshout. Droeshout, 22 when he made it, likely never met his subject, but the portrait was acknowledged by Shakespeare’s contemporaries as a good likeness, making it one of only two in existence (the bust on his grave in Stratford-upon-Avon is the other).

The Folio will be on display till 8 March (open seven days) at the Curator’s Gallery, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. The museum will celebrate Shakespeare Weekend this Saturday and Sunday with workshops for children above age 6. To register, email

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