It’s hard to think of a more sought-after book at auction than a First Folio Shakespeare. Published in 1623 – seven years after the great man’s death – it constitutes the finest collection of poetry and drama in any language.
The announcement that a copy will come up for auction April with an estimate of around $4 million to $6 million is a timely reminder of a few things we know about Shakespeare and few things we don’t.
The first thing is that none of the playwright’s original scripts for his 37 plays has survived and it is only through the printed editions that we know his works at all. Without the First Folio, 18 of the plays would probably have not survived, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Tempest and Measure For Measure. How many of the more famous and widely used sayings would also have been lost to the English language as a result? Shakespeare is known to have contributed at least 1700 words to English for a start.
If Shakespeare himself is the god of the written word, then John Heminge and Henry Condell are its guardian angels. Fellow actors and friends of The Bard, it was they who edited the First Folio and had it printed, dividing the plays into comedies, histories and tragedies.