Making Shakespeare: The First Folio

Fri. Nov. 17 at 8:00 p.m.

With only half of William Shakespeare’s plays published before his death, often in inaccurate and incomplete versions, the First Folio is the first published collection of his full plays. Produced seven years after Shakespeare’s death, it preserved the other half of the Bard’s works including beloved plays like “The Tempest,” “Julius Caesar,” “Twelfth Night” and “Macbeth,” which would have otherwise been lost to time.

From the makers of “Great Performances,” narrated by Emmy, Tony, and Grammy Award winner Audra McDonald, and from the directors and producers of The WNET Group’s Shakespeare Uncovered, the documentary tells the story of the efforts of Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell to create the book, including the struggle to secure the financing, their difficulty tracing the scripts, the dilemma of choosing between versions of the published plays available, and the challenge of printing the 900-page volume with all the complexities and inadequacies of 17th century printing techniques.

Only approximately 750 First Folios have been printed, and these copies have made their way around the world. The documentary showcases several folios with notable owners, including one examined by King Charles III that was owned and cherished by King Charles I right up to his execution that includes the markings he made inside. The film also uncovers the mystery owner of a folio who had remained anonymous for four centuries and was revealed to be the celebrated English poet John Milton. Emmy Award-winning actor Brian Cox and wife and fellow actor Nicole Ansari also discover more about great American Shakespeare lover and folio collector Henry Folger, who amassed a third of all known folios. The film also follows the trail of the infamous stolen Durham folio as it made its way across the Atlantic and was finally identified and recovered 20 years later.

Featuring numerous museums and universities, the documentary spotlights the work of the Public Theater in New York City, including their bilingual musical version of “Comedy of Errors” that tours New York’s diverse neighborhoods. The film additionally spotlights 11-year-old students from the Bronx who make their own sense of the tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet,” and also goes behind the scenes of Kenny Leon’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Hamlet,” set in Atlanta, Georgia, that uncovers a Shakespeare who challenges racism and violence in America today.

“Making Shakespeare: The First Folio” premieres Friday, November 17 at 8:00 p.m. on Arizona PBS and will also be available on and the PBS App.

This article first appeared on


Arizona PBS hosted a screening and panel discussion for the documentary on Wednesday, November 8, 2023, at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications’ First Amendment Forum. Watch a recording below!

About the panelists

Ruben Espinosa, our moderator for the panel discussion, is Associate Professor of English at ASU and Associate Director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He is the author of “Shakespeare on the Shades of Racism” (2021) and other works. He was also a trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America (2018-2021).

Sir Jonathan Bate joined ASU in 2019 as Foundation Professor of Environmental Humanities in Global Futures, the School of Sustainability and the College of Liberal Arts. Coming from Oxford University, Bate is an international leader in green thinking and applied humanities, with scholarly expertise in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. In 2015, he became the youngest person ever to have been knighted for services to literary scholarship.

Eric Rasmussen is Regents Teaching Professor and Foundation Professor of English at the University of Nevada. He is coeditor of the bestselling “Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare” (with Sir Jonathan Bate, Bloomsbury and Random House, 2nd edition, 2022), and other works. Rasmussen is a General Editor of the New Variorum Shakespeare and has served on seventeen editorial and advisory boards including the Board of Trustees of the Shakespeare Association of America. 

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