Mysteries of the First Folio
Episode 7 with Katherine Chiljan

The First Folio has been called “incomparably the most important work in the English language.”

First Folios are among the most prized books in the world. The 230 or so surviving copies are treasured for their age and rarity, but mostly for their close association to the world of Shakespeare. In 400 years of literary sleuthing, no manuscripts, letters, books he owned, or other intellectual relics have been found, so this posthumous collection is a way to approach the great author – after all, people who knew the man himself gathered and edited this edition. A First Folio is also a way to connect with Shakespeare’s earliest readers, some of whom have left marginal notes (and food smears) on the pages.

There are curiosities about the First Folio that make some scholars wonder if the book has another, secret, history.

Published in 1623, seven years after William Shakespeare’s death, and purportedly assembled by members of his theater company, the First Folio is the earliest collection of Shakespeare plays. Many of the plays had never before been in print. The book also provided a first glimpse at the face of the author, in the famous engraving by Martin Droeshout. (See this post for more about this controversial portrait.)

There are curiosities about the book that make some scholars wonder if the First Folio has another, secret, history. The introductory pages contain ambiguous and contradictory information about Shakespeare himself, and questions persist concerning the Folio’s production. Why did it take 7 years to produce the posthumous collection? Why didn’t Shakespeare himself coordinate the effort during his years of retirement in Stratford-upon-Avon? After all, Ben Jonson put out his own collected works in 1616. What were the costs involved in producing these expensive reference-sized volumes of nearly 1,000 pages? Why didn’t writers of the day make any reference to the release of the Folio, with its new Shakespeare plays including The Tempest, Macbeth and Twelfth Night? And what surprising discovery have researchers made about the role of Ben Jonson in the creation of the Folio?

Katherine Chiljan, author of Shakespeare Suppressed: The Uncensored Truth about Shakespeare and his Works, joins us to investigate the Mysteries of the First Folio.


Recommended Reading

Books and articles for further exploration:


Katherine Chiljan is the author of Shakespeare Suppressed: The Uncensored Truth About Shakespeare and His Works. A graduate of U.C.L.A. and an independent scholar, she has studied the Shakespeare authorship question for over 26 years, and debated the topic with English professors at the Smithsonian Institution and the Mechanics’ Institute Library in San Francisco. In April 2012, Chiljan received an award for distinguished scholarship at Concordia University for Shakespeare Suppressed. She has also published two anthologies: Dedication Letters to the Earl of Oxford (1994) and Letters and Poems of Edward, Earl of Oxford (1998). Chiljan has given talks on the Shakespeare Authorship Question and discussed it on radio and tv. She is a former trustee of the Shakespeare-Oxford Society.

Special thanks to our actors:
Mark Waldstein, Chris Ensweiler, and David Anthony Lewis.


William Shakespeare from the title page of the First Folio, 1623. Engraver Martin Droeshout has been heavily criticized for the masklike features and his deviation from portrait conventions of the time. “Looke not on his picture,” warns Ben Jonson, “but on his Booke.” Click on the image to learn more about the portrait controversy.

The title page portrait from Ben Jonsons’ folio of 1616. This image is typical of 17th Century portraiture, featuring sculptural elements, a crown of laurel leaves, and an inscription lauding Jonson as a learned poet.  Click the picture for more examples of title page portraits of the era.

William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Literary sponsor, one of the “incomparable paire of brethren” to whom the First Folio was dedicated, and a major patron of Ben Jonson. How involved was Pembroke in the Folio’s production?

Portrait of soldier William Fairfax by Martin Droeshout, 1621. Given the publication date, it would have been done around the same time as the picture of Shakespeare, yet it shows a great deal more skill and realism. Why? Click the image to visit our Pinterest gallery with other examples of Droeshout’s work.