Many early English books lack page numbers, but all or nearly all have signatures or signings at the bottom of pages, which can be used to identify page order. Thus, the pages of the "Ramparts Scene," misnumbered 156, 257, 258 and 259 in the "Tragedies" section can also be identified as Signatures Nn6v, Oo1r, Oo1v, and Oo2r.

As Peter Blayney tells us, "The Shakespeare First Folio is what is known as a 'folio in sixes'. What that means is a book made up of six-leaf sections (or 'quires'), each consisting of three sheets of paper folded together (and eventually sewn). . . . Each sheet has two pages printed on each side, so each quire contains twelve pages of text (approximately half an average play)" (Blayney 9).

Each quire of the folio is identied by a letter (or letters) of the alphabet (A, B, C . . . Z, Aa, Bb, Cc, etc.); each of the six leaves within that quire is numbered (1-6); and the two sides of each leaf are identified as recto (r) and verso (v) respectively.

For example, in the signature A6v:

  • A - indicates quire
  • 6 - indicates leaf
  • v - indicates side of a leaf (recto/verso)

Thus, the first 12 pages of The Tempest in the First Folio are identified as A1r, A1v, A2r, A2v, A3r, A3v, A4r, A4v, A5r, A5v, A6r, A6v and are arranged as shown above.


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Less is more?

Normally, both the letter 'r' and the number '1' are not printed; the signature on the first page of The Tempest, for example, is printed simply as 'A' rather than 'A1r'.

Moreover, normally only the first three recto signatures (or even just the first and third recto signatures) are actually printed. Because quires are made up of three folded sheets printed front and back, the signatures on the first three recto sides can properly identify the page order of all twelve pages in a quire. In the illustration below, for example, A(1r), A2(r), and A3(r) could allow a printer to identify all the pages of that quire.


The four pages of the 'Ramparts Scene' in Hamlet -- Nn6v, Oo1r, Oo1v, Oo2r -- span over two quires:

Of the four possible signatures, only the second signature 'Oo1r' is printed, and it is abbreviated to 'Oo'.

Given that printers relied on signatures rather than page numbers to order pages within a book, the one hundred page gap in page numbers at the beginning of the new 'Oo' quire in the 'Ramparts Scene' seems less extraordinary.


See also: catchwords


Blayney, Peter W.M. The First Folio of Shakespeare. (Washington, D.C.: Folger Library Publications, 1991).


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