April 23rd 2016, marks the 400th anniversary of the death of a man whose very name has become synonymous the world over with eloquence and culture, William Shakespeare. Consequently, the entire world is celebrating with countless Shakespearean themed events, lectures, and exhibitions. Like the Bard’s works, these celebrations vary widely in their range and appeal, while still managing to maintain a universality that stretches across time, cultures, and languages. From one side of the globe to the others: countries, groups, classes and individuals alike are bringing their own unique spin, flavor and take on Shakespeare, the man, his work, and his impact. Amidst all of this revelry, it is hard then to believe that had it not been for a single volume of literature, we may not even have heard of William Shakespeare, let alone be celebrating his genius and artistry centuries after he shuffled off this mortal coil.
This literary ark, more commonly referred to as simply The First Folio, was first printed in 1623 by two members of Shakespeare’s acting company under the hefty title: Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. This marked the first time that Shakespeare’s plays were printed together, 18 of them, for the first time. Furthermore the First Folio also put, a now iconic, face with author because it includes the Droeshout portrait – which is considered to be authentic, or at least a decent likeness because the book was published by people who knew him well. However, the reason the First Folio has come to be known as the book that gave us Shakespeare is almost entirely due to the quality of both the hand-made cotton-linen rag paper and the Gall ink used. Without their superior quality, it is unlikely that any of the First Folios would have survived so long or that we would still be studying, celebrating, and enjoying Shakespeare’s remarkable works.
Nevertheless, perhaps the most remarkable thing is about Shakespeare’s First Folio, is that it was printed at all, let alone in such exquisite and lavish manner. While today, it is estimated that a billion copies of his work have been sold, during Shakespeare’s life time it was rare for plays to be printed at all, and even then only in quarto (small, easily damaged books, in which each printed sheet was cut into 4 double sided pages) for actors or other members of the theater industry. Due to his immense popularity, about half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed in this quarto format as early as 1594.
However, since folios were usually only reserved for prestigious works at the time, printing a collection of plays, which were considered too ‘common’ for such an honor, was a tremendously bold and unusual move. I imagine it would be sort of similar to buying leather bound collection of comic books today. An action that becomes an even bolder move when one considers the whopping £1 price tag, a modern equivalency of well over $400. While there are people who would appreciate and purchase such an item, the great majority of people may not necessarily share such a notion.
Scholars estimate that 750 copies of the First Folio were printed. However, because many of these surviving volumes are held in private collections, in some cases perhaps since their original sale, it is quite impossible to say definitively just how may copies there are. Just recently, a previously unrecorded copy of the First Folio was ‘discovered’ when it came up for auction at Christies in London, increasing the number of First Folios accounted for to 233. This particular copy was bought in 1800 by Sir George Augustus Schuckburgh Evelyn, and has been hidden from the public view since then. If you are lucky enough to be in London, this newly recorded copy of the First Folio will be on public display from April 20th-28th as part of the 400th anniversary before going under the gavel on May 25th 2016 where it is expected to fetch upwards of £1.2 million.
Here, in the United States, the Folger Shakespeare Library, located in the District of Columbia, will be hosting The Wonders of Will: a collection of events and displays through out 2016. One of the most ambitious exhibits planned is their First Folio! The book that Gave us Shakespeare by taking a copy of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, to each of the 50 states, the District of Colombia, and Puerto Rico this year. I love this idea, because when it comes to traveling, there is nothing quite so quintessentially American as the Road Trip. The freedom and the romance of the open road have attracted folk from every walk of life, age, and corner of the globe. Whether getting lost to find yourself, or just heading towards the horizon to see what is there, countless individuals have driven the highways and byways of the new world.
Details about where and when the First Folio is coming to your state can be found on the Folger Libraries web site http://www.folger.edu/first-folio-tour
Individual cities will be adding their own individual flare to the celebrations. New Orleans will be throwing a Jazz funeral for the Bard. Florida will be introducing him to Hip Hop, and San Diego’s Old Globe Theater will be showing original props, cossets and photos from over 80 years of their archives. Here in Washington, the First Folio was on display at the downtown Central Library, in Seattle, from March 21st until April 17th.
Seattle’s history with Shakespeare dates back to the city’s first professional theatrical engagement 1864, when Edith Mitchell performed a reading in Plumber’s hall, and an avid interest continues today. Of the 15,000 free tickets to view the First Folio available 9,000 were reserved before the event even opened. Happily, I managed to snag 6 of these tickets my family for Saturday, March 26th. That day, there were live performances, costumes, craft activities for children, and of course the countless artifacts. My two youngest children, 6 and 8, really gave the costume volunteers a work out, spending well over an hour trying on every costume available and posing for a multitude of pictures. Tirelessly, this poor woman brought out costume after costume, pandering to the children’s every whim all within feet of a collection of Shakespearean memorabilia and replicas. For the children, this stole the show, for me it showed that the Seattle Public Library understood, just as Shakespeare, did that people must first and foremost be entertained.
When at long last our viewing time arrived we headed up the massive elevators to the 8th floor where at long last we had the opportunity to see the main attraction, The First Folio. The beautifully bound tome, open to Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, was on display in a clear, temperature, humidity and light regulated case. I found this to be a little ironic, when one considers that Shakespeare’s works were meant to be seen and heard, not read, and certainly not encased in glass away from human contact, even if I did fully understand and support the need to protect this ark of literature and elegance.
As a pleasant surprise, there was also a copy of the Third Folio, from the Piggott collection. With the exception of the First Folio, the Third Folio, printed in 1664, is the most rare and expensive of the Four Folios. This is believed to be because of the Great Fire of London in 1666, in which many of the unsold copies were destroyed. This book, was also encased in a special glass coffin to protect it from all of its admirers, and was just as breathtakingly beautiful as its predecessor.
All and all, it was a wonderful experience, one I hope my children will remember, more for the fun they had and the history they viewed than for the costumes they played with…but then again, who am I to judge.
I sincerely hope that you will celebrate the great collection of works that is William Shakespeare this year in whatever way best suits you. Whether it is seeing a performance, viewing a copy of the First Folio, or something more unique and avant-garde like attending a jazz funeral; take the time to remember the Bard.