What stands Shakespeare apart from many of his contemporaries is the remarkable preservation of his works. It is believed that only 230 plays survive from the period. Of this number, sixteen per cent of the work can be attributed to Shakespeare. For that credit is owed to the First Folio – a collection of his plays compiled by John Heminges and Henry Condell and published in 1623. As two original members of the Chamberlain’s Men, Heminges and Condell had worked closely with Shakespeare and seem to have taken a personal investment in the project following the playwright’s death in 1616. Its content included thirty-six plays and included the maiden print of classics such as Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest. Yet, the publication of a folio of plays was unusual, time-consuming and expensive. It is a testament, therefore, to Shakespeare’s reputation and the work of Heminges and Condell that the decision was a resounding success with three further editions following. Without their efforts, William Shakespeare could well have been lost to history.
Fortunately, Shakespeare’s shadow looms as large today as it ever did. His output of work was prolific and, owing much to the folio produced by Heminges and Condell, we are left with thirty-eight known plays, 154 sonnets and numerous poems that are widely accessible. These numbers merely touch the surface, however, and the impact of Shakespeare’s legacy extends to everything from our language to the popular culture he continues to influence. His work is regularly incorporated into the education syllabus as well as being constantly reworked for twenty-first century audiences to reflect contemporary issues and values. It is unlikely that Shakespeare would have envisaged himself as the cultural phenomenon he continues to be four centuries after his death, especially if Ophelia’s line - ‘we know what we are but know not what we may be’ (Hamlet Act IV, Scene V) – provides any indication.