Collections of Distinction

Heb Ddieu Heb Ddim: the False Folio Affair

by jmoschella


Jaggard’s Heb Ddiue device on a false folio title page

Allowing for caveats and scholarly disagreement, the corpus of surviving Shakespearian manuscript materials is comprised of just twelve words: “William Shakespeare,” or variant spellings thereof, signed six times across four different legal documents.  There are no rough drafts of his plays or sonnets, no correspondence or diaries; nothing to help us understand the inner workings of Shakespeare’s creative process.

This vacuum of evidence has been filled by centuries of speculation over everything from which printed editions most accurately reflect Shakespeare’s original intent, to whether Shakespeare himself was anything more than an elaborate fraud — a boorish country actor at the center of a plot to pass off the writing of another man as his own.

Without manuscript evidence, those interested in the array of questions surrounding Shakespeare’s life and work are forced to rely on printed matter only. This fact is reflected in the volume of textual scholarship focused on comparisons between the various editions. In order to facilitate such comparisons, scholars have sought a definitive chronology of Shakespeare’s printed output. Historically speaking, however, the establishment of such a chronology has proven difficult.

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Before the publication of the First Folio in 1623, Shakespeare’s plays had been issued in a modest number of slim quarto editions that frequently varied in content. Many of these quartos borrowed from earlier editions or from other, retrospectively elusive sources. The processes through which the quartos were produced may have led to the promulgation of post-authorial errors and spurious additions to the texts, though the nature of Shakespeare’s relationship to the publishing houses and the methods through which his texts were transmitted from manuscript into print, remains a matter of continuing scholarly debate. Further muddying the bibliographical waters, a number of these early quartos were apparently issued under false imprints, which makes the establishment of a publication chronology all the more difficult.

Today, the early quartos are extremely rare, with a few scattered exemplars from each edition remaining. The Thomas Pennant Barton Collection of Shakespeare and Shakespeariana, one of the BPL’s collections of distinction, includes over 45 of the early quartos, 18 of which were printed before 1623.

One group of these quartos has been the source of much confusion for both bibliographers and scholars alike. The nine titles in question (or ten, depending on how you count them) were issued in 1619 through the partnership of William Jaggard and Thomas Pavier. For reasons that remain unknown, the plays in this group were printed with individual title pages that bore a range of misleading dates, from 1600 to 1619, while their publication was either falsely attributed to other booksellers or left ambiguous.

The titles in the collection were:

Title page to the BPL's copy of The whole contention. . .

Title page to the BPL’s copy of The whole contention. . .


By the beginning of the 20th century, both A Yorkshire tragedy and Sir John Oldcastle were no longer attributed to Shakespeare, but the false imprints were still taken at face value and the Pavier/Jaggard quartos were still thought to have been discretely published. This view began to change in 1906 when Alfred W. Pollard, one of the major figures in the revival of modern bibliography, posited that all nine had been printed simultaneously and that, furthermore, they had originally been bound together for sale in a single volume. In short order, Pollard and other bibliographers, including W.W. Greg, came to consider these editions piracies — unauthorized knock-offs issued through the machinations of an unscrupulous printer/bookseller duo. Thereafter, the collection of quartos was derisively referred to, by many, as the false folio.


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BPL call no. G.406.76, printed in London, displays a typical false imprint.

In bibliographical terms, the identification of a book’s publisher, typically found on the title page, is called an imprint. In order to evade copyright or to insulate themselves from dangerous associations with controversial works, publishers sometimes issued books under falsified imprints. In such cases, any of the three elements of the imprint (place, date, name of publisher) might be altered or omitted in order to mislead. The plays in the so-called false folio, however, were hardly controversial. What’s more, Pavier seems to have held publication rights to five of the titles, while rights to at least two of the others had already gone derelict. Thus, the typical motives behind imprint falsification do not seem to have been at play.

An additional contradictory point within the piracy theory relates to the apparent lack of consequences for Pavier and Jaggard’s alleged misdeeds. In early 1619, the company of actors known as the King’s Men, to which Shakespeare himself had belonged, petitioned the Stationer’s Company for publication rights to the late playwright’s works. Those who subscribe to the piracy theory have traditionally seen this petitions as a move against the unscrupulous work of Pavier and Jaggard. And yet, just two years later, Henry Condell and John Heminge, both senior members of the King’s Men, turned to Jaggard to print the First Folio.

In Shakespeare and the Rise of the Editor (Cambridge University Press, 2007) Sonia Massai advocates for a radical scenario that would explain some of the inherent contradictions of the piracy theory. Massai believes that Pavier and Jaggard weren’t usurping any rights when they produced the collection and that, furthermore, they were actually working with the King’s Men. The false folio, she suggests, was printed in such a way as to resemble a bound-up collection of previously printed, hard-to-find works from a playwright who had not been published since his death three years prior. According to Massai, the issuance of the collection was an attempt by the group to whet the appetite of the book-buying public in the run-up to their production and eventual publication of the first folio.  The whole thing was, in short, a sales gimmick.

Massai’s scenario would account for many of the inexplicable contradictions in the traditional piracy theory. Ultimately, however, the motives behind the publication of the Jaggard/Pavier quartos remain the subject of ever-evolving scholarship. With implications that extend well beyond the boundaries of traditional bibliography, this is exactly the kind of open question that researchers turn to rare books collections for. As one of a handful of institutions in the world to hold a copy of all nine titles, the BPL has recently recataloged the whole collection and is in the process of digitizing each play. Those that have already been scanned can be viewed at the links provided above.

To learn more about the so-called false folio, to view the BPL’s copies of each individual title in person, or to learn more about the Thomas Pennant Barton Collection of Shakespeare and Shakespeariana, please contact the Rare Books Department via email ( or telephone (617-859-2225).





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