Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare's First Folio

Making Shakespeare: The First Folio Key Art

Making Shakespeare: The First Folio Key Art


William Shakespeare died at 52 in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 1616 and was buried two days later. His career spanned merely 28 years (give or take), and of his writings, 19 plays had been published in various states of completion during his life. Considering that today, he is credited with having written twice that many scripts and over 150 sonnets and poems, that was barely a third of his output preserved when he died. The next seven years were a struggle to collect all of Shakespeare's works in one place and put them together in a single volume. Three years after Shakespeare's death, a preliminary copy with several false title pages and dates came out, a scandal known as the "False Folio" affair. Steven Knight and Sarah Lancashire are currently dramatizing all of this in a new TV limited series due out in 2024

However, seven years after the playwright passed, on November 8, 1623, Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, now referred to as the "First Folio" of William Shakespeare's plays in modern scholarship, was registered. It is considered one of the most influential books of literature ever published, alongside Dante's Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. It is the most influential book of plays published, and upon reaching its 400th birthday, a pillar of the United Kingdom's main export: Culture.

Shakespeare only wrote plays for three decades, but his stories have entertained and influenced audiences worldwide for four centuries. Here are some of his best writings, read by the best actors the U.K. has to offer.

Judi Dench, 'Sonnet 29'

No one knows when Shakespeare wrote most of his sonnets; it is assumed they were written privately, never meant for publishing, but one numbered so low was probably early on. They're also truly beautiful stuff, as Dame Judi Dench reminded everyone recently on The Graham Norton Show.

David Tennant as Hamlet in 'Hamlet'

No one entirely agrees when Hamlet was written, but it is accepted as one of Shakespeare's earliest works. (There's a whole Ur-Hamlet theory if you're really into tumbling down a rabbit hole.) The "To Be or Not To Be" speech is The Shakespeare Speech; there's no avoiding it, ignoring it, or skipping it, so you might as well have David Tennant do it. This is from the 2009 BBC version where he starred with Patrick Stewart, by the way, which is worth tracking down just for that.

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V in 'Henry V'

There was a time when Kenneth Branagh was not a man who rated himself over-highly and really was the hottest actor out of the U.K., the kind who could turn a Shakespeare film into a box office hit. His 1989 war film Henry V (which he starred in alongside then-wife Emma Thompson and a host of British A-listers) was the start of a slew of Shakespeare plays he directed starring himself and Thompson, and the best of the lot by miles and miles. 

Ashley Thomas as Shylock in 'The Merchant of Venice'

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's early works from the 1590s that sits undated; it's also one that's pretty controversial since it's about anti-semitism while also being pretty anti-semitic. The updated BBC take on this Shylock speech as part of its updating Shakespeare for Gen Z is an eye opener, though as celebrity Ashley Thomas turns the famous Shylock speech into something that any minority living in the U.K. can relate to.

Gwendoline Christie as Titania in 'A Midsummer's Night Dream'

A Midsummer's Night Dream was written in 1595, and is probably the most famous of all of Shakespeare's comedies. It's sort of his peak mistaken identity everyone-sleeps-with-everyone-fairies-and-elves-and-magic-oh-my silliness. Plus it's got a play within a play! What more could you ask for?

Patrick Stuart as John of Gaunt in 'Richard II'

Everything about The Hollow Crown and The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses cycle from the BBC is just chefs kiss, but none quite so much as Richard II, with Ben Whishaw in the title role. Sadly, his "This Sceptred Isle" speech is not on YouTube, but his scene with Patrick Stuart as John of Gaunt is, and it's just as remarkable, a moment of British Shakespeare royalty passing the torch.

Zawe Ashton as Jacques in 'As You Like It'

Shakespeare's most famous soliloquy begins, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." The line is actually from As You Like It, which was estimated to have been first written in 1599 or 1600. Technically classified as a comedy, it really is a dramedy before the term was invented, and it's one of those that has no recorded performances in Shakespeare's lifetime and literally only exists because it was found and published in the First Folio.

Ian McKellen as Richard III in 'Richard III'

Shakespeare's entire history cycle of plays was written in the 1590s, spanning from Henry IV Part 1 through the rarely done Edward III. The most popular ones are Henry V and Richard III, which have standalone films outside The Hollow Crown cycle. But none were quite as popular as Ian McKellen's Nazi take on Richard III, which was released in 1995, and cemented him in the American mind as one of the leading Shakespearean actors of the day prior to The Lord of the Rings.

Damian Lewis as Antony in 'Julius Caesar'

Julius Caesar is technically a tragedy, not a history play, written in 1599 but not published until the First Folio. Anthony's speech at Caesar's burial is one of the playwright's most famous monologues, along with Caesar's final line, "Et tu, Brute?" 

Ashley Waters as Romeo in 'Romeo & Juliet'

Romeo & Juliet is one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, the star-crossed lovers that will never die. It's also kind of hard to make believable for modern audiences, as it really does require one to get into the mindset of the modern teenager. However, the street gang setting of West Side Story is one of the most successful remakes, which is why this BBC reset of the original with Ashley Walters as Romeo as a lovestruck hoodie works so well.

Joanna Lumley as Viola in 'Twelfth Night'

Of all Shakespeare's comedies, Twelfth Night wins the award for the most crossed-dressed, and if it were written today, it would probably lose points for massive amounts of queer-baiting without delivering. However, it also has some of the best and funniest speeches as people realize the blindingly obvious has happened and have to act totally surprised about it. Now that's comedy.

Riz Ahmed as Edmund in 'King Lear'

King Lear is technically billed under the tragedy banner rather than a history play, and was first performed for King James I in 1606. Though the title role is the one that gets all the attention, Riz Ahmed's performance as the oft-overlooked villain of the story, Edmund, is really worth a watch.

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Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. A DC native, Hufflepuff, and Keyboard Khaleesi, she spends all her non-writing time taking pictures of her cats. Regular bylines also found on MSNBC, Paste, Primetimer, and others. 

A Woman's Place Is In Your Face. Cat Approved. Find her on BlueSky and other social media of your choice: @anibundel.bsky.social

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