Few would dispute the claim that the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays – commonly known as the First Folio – is the most highly prized book in English literature. Because none of the manuscripts for Shakespeare's plays has survived, we must rely on the printed texts as our earliest sources. Of the thirty-six plays contained in the First Folio, eighteen (including such masterpieces as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and The Tempest) had not appeared in print before. Others, such as Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, were previously available only in truncated, somewhat garbled versions.
Shakespeare was born in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, in 1564. Little is known for sure about his formative years, but by the early 1590s he was working as a playwright and actor in London. He belonged to a company of players known first as the Lord Chamberlain's Men (because their patron, Henry Carey, Lord Chamberlain) and subsequently, from May 1603 when the new monarch James I, took over the sponsorship), as the King's Men. He died in 1616.
In the early 1620s two of Shakespeare's former colleagues in the King's Men, John Heminge (there are several variant spellings of the surname) and Henry Condell, gathered texts of his plays and took them to the printing shop run by the ailing William Jaggard (who died before the First Folio was completed) and his son Isaac. The bookseller Edward Blount was also involved in the publication. ‘Folio’ is a printer's term, indicating a large-format book, at least fifteen inches (thirty-eight centimetres) tall, made by folding the printed sheets of paper only once (as opposed to quartos, which are folded twice). About a thousand copies of Shakespeare's First Folio are thought to have been printed. Less than a quarter of these have survived.
At different times Sir George Grey owned two copies. He donated one to Cape Town's public library in 1863. The other was purchased specifically as a behest to Auckland. Indeed, it was in Grey's hands for only a brief time. He began negotiations with London bookseller Bernard Quaritch before leaving New Zealand for the last time in March 1894 and finalised the deal on his arrival in England. The First Folio was among the consignment of one hundred books he sent back to Auckland in November 1894. Although the price asked by Quaritch – £85 – was a not inconsiderable sum in the 1890s, it looks like a great bargain compared with the seven-digit figures that copies have fetched at auctions in the twenty-first century.