In 2001, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen purchased Shakespeare's First Folio at auction for over $6 million dollars. He has graciously loaned it to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland for viewings, three days a week, with all proceeds going to benefit the Festival. For $5, I was able to view the Folio with a docent who happened to be a scholar on Jacobean Printing Techniques.
Besides seeing such a historic book, the history of its printing was absolutely fascinating, and I wanted to cover the highlights here:
1) The English language was not considered a formal language during the time of Shakespeare; it was spoken by the commoner. Educated people typically spoke or wrote Latin, Greek, one of the Romantic languages (French, Italian or Spanish) or German; English was for every-day use. This meant that spellings were not set, nor would they be until about 300 years later. It is also what gives us the variety and richness (and sometimes confusion) of English. The three men and two boys who typeset the Folio used their personal preferences when it came to spelling words -- this is how scholars can tell who typeset what pages of the Folio.
2) The printers would set and print a sheet of the Folio, then hang it to dry. The next day, they would proof the dry sheet, making any changes and continuing its run. Sometimes they would proof and correct half of the sheet, then go back and proof the rest and finish making corrections - all the while printing more sheets. However, they would not throw out the previous un-proofed or erroneous sheets. Those would be included in the run. The end result was that no two First Folios are the same, and there are differences in all of them. Paul Allen's is considered one of the cleanest and most perfect First Folios we have.
3) We aren't really sure how many First Folios were printed. The estimate is as low as 600 and as high as 1200, but the standard guess is about 750. This also would depend on what you count as a First Folio. They were sold three ways: (1) Bound by the publisher - the most expensive option and the one least taken; (2) as a complete block of pages and then the purchaser hired his own binder and specified how the book was to look; and (3) piecemeal -- you could buy, say, pages 1-10 this week then come back next week for pgs. 10-20 and so on until you had the whole set. This was very common for the times it was printed in. This First Folio was purchased under (2) and then bound privately. So most of the First Folios look as differently on the outside as they are varied on the inside.
4) We aren't sure how many exist today. The guess is about 250. They have been trying to get an accurate inventory since the 1970s (back then the estimate was closer to 200), but there are private libraries and things in attics that we don't know about and occasionally find. Also, it depends on what you count as a First Folio. Many libraries have pieces of the Folio, not the whole thing. The Folger Library has 79 copies in various states. Given the way it was sold, the length of time and its rarity to begin with, its amazing we have any left.
5) Besides having different spellings, the words have different ligatures. Sometimes they used what we would consider an f for the letter s; sometimes they used combined letters, other times not. The f for an s was very common in Jacobean times; it differed from the true f because the crossbar of a true f went all the way through while if it was an s it was only half-way. This has led to many scholarly arguements, such as the one about Prospero's wife.
In The Tempest, Ferdinand says "So rare a wondred Father, and a wife" -- or does he? Wife has been wise in many translation and the debate rages on with scholars claiming that the lead type broke down during printing and the crossbar eroded, or that it was a piece of lint that only looked like a crossbar...
Ultimately, what directors and actors have decided from all the varied First Folios with their errors, different spellings, and mystical crossbars is that Shakespeare is open for a lot of interpretation, and that there is not just one way that is correct.
It was great to spend some time viewing this book and hearing how it was printed and how different it was than today.
PS: Pictures were not allowed and the one I have posted was from a Sotheby's Auction earlier this year.