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Celebrating the Shakespeare First Folio

Celebrating the Shakespeare First Folio

In 2016, organizations around the world commemorated the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. One of the most unique events focused on the Shakespeare First Folio. For its exhibit First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC sent eighteen of its precious First Folios on a tour covering all fifty states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. Altogether, the Folios traveled 71,000 miles and were seen by more than half a million people.

Why is the Shakespeare First Folio so important? Shakespeare’s plays were extremely popular during the 15th and 16th centuries, but only a few of them were published during his lifetime.  After he died, Shakespeare’s partners, John Heminges and Henry Condell, decided to honor his memory by publishing a complete set of his works. They used original source materials to recreate versions of the plays that were as close to the original texts as possible. These were compiled in a single volume entitled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, which was published in 1623. We know it as the First Folio. Without the First Folio, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays – half of his life’s work – would have been lost. This includes favorites such as Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night. 

Be it art or hap, he hath spoken true.  Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, s. 3

A Second Folio was published in 1632. It was followed by the Third Folio in 1664 and the Fourth Folio in 1685. Each edition strayed further and further from the text found in the Shakespeare First Folio. Unfortunately, no one realized the significance of the the First Folio for more than 100 years. Many copies had already been lost or broken up by that time.

Approximately 750 copies of the First Folio were printed, and around 235 are still known to exist. The Folger owns 82 of them, the largest collection in the world, but it usually displays only one copy. That’s why First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare was such an unprecedented event.

From Juneau to Honolulu, Miami to Cheyenne, Providence to San Diego, each Folio set out on a cross-country trip. When they returned from their travels, Folger launched First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour. This exhibit, which runs through January 22, 2017, showcases the 18 travelling First Folios and shares stories from their adventures.

I jumped at the opportunity to see the largest exhibition of Shakespeare First Folios ever held in a single location. I’m glad I made the trip; the exhibit was highly entertaining and informative. Each Folio included information on its history, a map of the places where it travelled, and highlights of some of the activities held in its host states.

Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.  Othello, Act II, s. 3

I particularly enjoyed learning about these activities. As you would expect, there was plenty of theater. Raleigh, NC was especially ambitious, putting on a non-stop, five-day marathon performance of all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays. There were also lectures, pub nights, Elizabethan arts and crafts, and a screening of the first Shakespeare play ever broadcast on national television (Julius Caesar in 1949). The Durham Museum in Omaha held Talk Like Shakespeare Day, students at Florida International University created a 3D virtual experience of 16th century London, and Tulane University in New Orleans held a jazz funeral for Shakespeare. You can check out the exhibit site to learn more about the travelling Folios and special events.

At this point, you may be asking why the Folger Shakespeare Library owns one-third of all the surviving Shakespeare First Folios. Henry Folger, an executive with the Standard Oil Company, and his wife Emily founded the library in 1932. Henry had an intense interest in all things related to Shakespeare, and he was an obsessive collector of First Folios. The Folgers also amassed thousands of other Shakespearean artifacts including rare books, historical documents, and artwork. This formed the nucleus of the Folger Shakespeare Library.  For more on the Folgers, I highly recommend The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio by Andrea Mays.

Finding the Shakespeare First Folio in America

If you can’t make it to Washington, there are other museums and libraries in the U.S. that own copies of the Shakespeare First Folio, including the New York Public Library, the Lilly Library at Indiana University, and the Ransom Center at the University of Texas Austin. Because the books are so fragile, they may not always be on display. Still, it’s worth checking if you’re in the area.  Every Anglophile should see a Shakespeare First Folio; it’s one of the most important books in the history of Western Civilization.




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