Tracing the Path of Shakespeare

In the 17th century, as many as 18 Shakespeare plays were saved from oblivion when they were published in four editions of his collected works. At work we’ve just placed Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio on display, so in honor, I’m going to tell you why it’s so awesome.


First things first: they’re called Folios because of their size (they’re larger format books, folio-sized books). Now, you might ask, wouldn’t I want a First Folio—the first collected works of Shakespeare—rather than a Fourth Folio? Well, I’m not going to argue with you about the greatness of the First Folio. But the Fourth Folio is important in its own right.



The Fourth Folio is key because it became the foundation text for the major editing projects of the next century, which determined how generations looked at Shakespeare. The (fallacious) idea is that every new edition of a work is going to be the most up to date and correct, so when editors approached the Folios for their base text, they naturally chose the newest edition: the Fourth.




Of course, the Fourth Folio wasn’t the most accurate Shakespeare text, having been “modernized” in its language. But newest is always bestest, as they say, (they say that, right?), and the Fourth Folio became the authority. So much so that owners literally threw away their older Folios because they had supposedly outlived their usefulness.

Threw away Shakespeare Folios! Did I mention that a First Folio is worth millions today?


What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever thrown away?


12 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    You have me thinking about what I have thrown away. The most expensive thing I have thrown away is probably not a book, as I have parted with very few of them :-).

  2. vanbraman says:

    Your question has caused me to think about dust jackets. Many people through them away. Especially if they are damaged. How much value does a dust jacket add to a book? Can damaged dust jackets still retain some value?

    1. Dust jackets are a huge part of the value for a Modern first edition. Collectibles need to be complete as originally issued, with all their original parts intact. If they lose a part, they are no longer complete, and therefore lose much of their collectible value. Dust jackets are a perfect example of this. An extreme case is the Great Gatsby–one of the most coveted, and scarce, dust jackets of all time. In the jacket the book can fetch $200,000 or more. Without the jacket, a first edition goes for a measly $5000.

      1. vanbraman says:

        I just watched the episode with the Eisenhower book. A good example of a missing dust cover having a big effect on value :-).

  3. Nick says:

    First edition Hobbit & Lord of the Rings set. Eeeeeeeeeek.

    1. Those are very rare!

  4. Mike C says:

    On a slightly different topic, what do you think of the claims/theories that Shakespeare did not write the plays, but possibly another used him as a cover. It is funny how the dramatic arts have evolved over the years. Wonder what the “old school-ers” (like Shakespeare) would think of the modern hits (literature that is)?

    1. This is not my specialty, but I believe that evidence found in the First Folio and elsewhere points to Shakespeare as the real author.

      I often wonder while listening to contemporary music what Bach or Haydn would think of it. For some reason that unknowable supposition brings me pleasure.

      1. Mike C. says:

        A friend of mine in college was studying music composition. He used to say that Metallica was actually very skilled in composition even though he did not care for it himself. He explained that unlike other “rock and/or roll” bands, they seemed to follow classic rules. This is definitely not my area if expertise but, maybe Bach would have been a Metallica fan. Not outwardly, but when he was at home with his cat and a cup of hot tea. 🙂

  5. Phil A. Stein says:

    Dear Mrs Romney,

    Is it true that Shakespeare’s sonnets were first published without his knowledge or consent? Is it also arguable that if that had not happened, if indeed it did, then many if not all may have been lost forever? Perhaps that was the destiny of some of his other works and we’ll never know. My favourite is No. 29 which I occasionally read to Mrs (Phyllis) Stein. What’s yours? Do you know who Mr W. H. was?

    1. Yes, it is believed by most scholars that Shakespeare’s sonnets were published without his approval. Thorpe, the publisher, was a shady man famous for pirating. And yes, it is also therefore arguable that the sonnets would have likely been lost forever. (This is a great topic for another post!) The sonnets were passed around privately, but were almost certainly never meant to be public.

      I’m going to stay out of the speculation about Mr. W.H.–there are so many guesses, and I think just not enough data to support one over all the others.

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