‘gather his works… to praise him’

In 1616, only six months after his friend William Shakespeare had died, Ben Jonson published a large collection of his own poems and plays in Folio format.

This was an exceptional act of self-promotion.

Did Jonson’s book inspire Shakespeare’s closest colleagues to do the same? Were they worried he would be forgotten?

Finding their motivation

Plays are written to be performed for live audiences, not read in silence. In the early 1600s, printing a book involved a lot of physical work and money. Plays were rarely printed. Many performed texts of the age have since been lost, because little survives on paper. Why is William Shakespeare different? What inspired the complex and costly task of printing his plays all together in the First Folio?

Following a successful career in London as a playwright, Shakespeare died in 1616. He left money in his will for three comrades from the King’s Men, John Heminge, Henry Condell and leading actor Richard Burbage, to buy mourning rings to remember him. Did they promise Shakespeare, before his death, to prepare a book that would preserve his work for future generations? 

Also in 1616, playwright and poet Ben Jonson published a compilation of his own work: an unusual and expensive act of self-promotion. We might imagine a proud Jonson walking into the Mermaid tavern, where Heminge, Condell and Burbage are raising a glass to their late friend Shakespeare. Jonson reveals a copy of his book, declaring, ‘Gentlemen, I am published!’  Did Jonson’s swagger determine the friends to honour Shakespeare’s achievements in the same way?

Or did publishers see the opportunity to profit from Shakespeare’s name, dreaming up the idea to gather his plays in one book? Did actors or publishers have the idea first? No-one knows for sure – but both needed to work together to get the job done.

Ben Jonson’s folio contained both poems and plays. Shakespeare’s folio was the first printed in England to contain only plays. Shakespeare’s poetry was excluded: this was to be his memorial as a playwright.