The Folger Shakespeare Library: Visiting the First Folio
Every time I visit Washington D. C. I make time to include a stroll through the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibit space. Home to the largest collection of First Folios in the world, the Folger fosters Shakespearean literacy and appreciation.
The exhibit space represents but a small area of the Folger’s overall complex of buildings just down the street from the U.S. Supreme court and the Library of Congress. On a clear day you can see the Capital from the entryway porch.
Each of my Folger visits includes a peek through a small glass window into the reading room where a reproduction of Shakespeare’s bust from Trinity Church holds court above scholars studying differences between the Folios, the cultural impact of Shakespeare, or seventieth century plays in general.
On this visit the Folger’s exhibit space was closed. A new exhibit was transforming the hall. From around the United States, First Folios were arriving home from their journeys. The Folger was preparing to tell the story of these Folios and their jaunts around the U.S. recognizing 400 years since Shakespeare’s death.
The Folios wandered from Juneau Alaska to Tucson Arizona, from Miami and Atlanta to Honolulu, from Bismarck to College Station—visiting all 50 states where they were shown in museums, universities, libraries, historical societies and even a theater.
People from around the United States, who might not otherwise have access to Shakespeare in the original, could see The Book, The First Folio, the original tome that has inspired countless puns, film and television scripts, school plays and countless hours of self-reflection and communal conversation.
I couldn’t see these returning Folios as the curators prepared them for the public. I have seen The First Folio behind glass before though, at the British Library, and here, during previous visits. A First Folio is always on exhibit at the Folger.
This visit to the Folger was very different, as offered a very personal experience, which provided an entirely new appreciation for the profound book that is the First Folio.
Beyond the Reading Room to the Vault
For this trip, I decided to write a note to the public relations team at the Folger and ask if I could go beyond the tiny glass window and enter the reading room.
The Folger PR Team, through contact Garland Scott, did me one better. After meeting in the foyer, Ms. Scott took me through the reading room and into the halls and stairways of the main building. Along the way, we connected with Caroline Duroselle-Melish, the Andrew Mellon Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints. She joined the adventure.
At over $5 million a copy, the First Folios not on display, along with the majority of the Folger’s collection of printed material and over 60,000 handwritten documents, reside behind a vault door that would deter all but the most brazen of fiction-inspired thieves.
We went down, eventually into a tiny anteroom with curio cabinet-like walls filled with Shakespeare inspired art, collectibles, and memorabilia. And then we passed through the Vault’s thick steel door and gate, past the heavy knobs and the associated tumblers. Scott and Duroselle-Melish guided me forward.
I had no idea what to expect. I simply followed the curators who were today, curating me.
We eventually stopped near a large table where were we met Curatorial Assistant, Elizabeth Debold. The team had clearly examined my writing at PopMatters, and read my personal blog to discover my Shakespearean proclivities. They all smiled, obvious from my face that I was impressed by the display.
Before me, laid out on a large wooden table, surrounded by reference works and material on shelves, in boxes and in drawers, was an artfully arranged private exhibition. Each book carefully placed on foam supports. And each book open to an interesting page. Atop most of the volumes dangled a string to hold their place. At the head of the table, of course, was a First Folio open to Martin Droeshout’s iconic image of William Shakespeare, one of two likeness known to be authenticated by those who knew him. The other is the bust in Trinity Church, a reproduction of which I had just passed in the Reading Room.
This First Folio, known to the Folger as Folger STC 22273 Fo. 1 no. 14, is bound in red leather. Its pages are gilded with gold. So many fine editions of Shakespeare now share those attributes that they seem expected. When sold by Edward Blount, and the father and son team of William and Isaac Jaggard, however, this “book” would likely have been sold as a sheaf of pages only. Binding was an up-charge.
Because of printing practices of the time, corrections were often caught and made midway through a run of pages, so each First Folio exists uniquely from its peers. Each Folio reflects a history that starts with its compositors who choose personal spellings for many words, and to inkers and page lifters who left their fingerprints on pages—and to the original buyers and subsequent owners who shepherded the volumes on their journeys through time and space. Some Folios were clearly cherished home library editions handed down like precious heirlooms. Some capture scholarly pursuits, with marginalia filling the edges of the plays. This Folio appears to have had its front matter washed at some time in the past, perhaps to remove a stain of drink or some other near defacement.
Duroselle-Melish turned several pages into the Folio no. 14 to reveal what she described as more pristine 400-year old paper. I know the book so well that it wasn’t the words, but the book itself. I will return to Folio below, which was not alone in this personal exhibit space.
Nearly as intriguing was the Loves Labors Lost quarto which was the first volume to acknowledge Shakespeare’s authorship. It’s titled reads: A pleasant conceited comedie called, Loues labors lost. As it vvas presented before her Highnes this last Christmas. Newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespeare. Which, true or not, implies Shakespeare’s hands in the editing of this volume. Here we see the author of a play, a rare occurrence at the time, not only credited but his creativity and editorial interest valued as a marketing tool.
Also on display was a 4th Folio fragment, that included pen and ink drawings and a personal letter signed by Victorian-era critic, John Ruskin dated 3 April 1869. Alongside these older documents sat a graphic novel in Spanish from 1978, and a 1960 promotion piece titled Shakespeare on “Time” that collected caricatures and cartoons from Time Magazine based on Shakespeare quotes related to time. The library also shared beautifully calligraphed copies of several poems, including a Shakespeare sonnet, transcribed by an anonymous fan, perhaps associated with Oxford University. There was also a volume of Shakespearian William Henry Ireland forgeries that included a purported lock of the Bard’s hair.
For the record, I align with those who believe Shakespeare was Shakespeare. While the shroud of history makes the conspiracy to falsely ascribe the plays to someone other than Shakespeare more plausible than the grand conspiracy of a faked moon landing (see my ‘How to Fake a Moon Landing’ Re-Examines Attitudes and Beliefs About Science’ at PopMatters), there is little evidence to support it. Before me, this thin volume, years ahead of the Folio, assigns Love’s Labor Lost to Shakespeare. Would a lowly stationer disregard actual authorship, even as he perhaps exaggerated claims about participation? That Shakespeare appears on the quarto speaks not of intrigues and falsehoods that would likely outstrip the capacity of the contemporaneous social fabric, but of a simple truth. That Heminges and Condell had to negotiate for rights to include some of the plays, with one negotiation taking place so late that Troilus and Cressida weren’t included in the table of contents, speaks to the number of stationers who would need be involved to perpetuate the conspiracy.
I have no doubt that Shakespeare was Shakespeare.
The Folio: My personal experience
I must be honest…I was a little star-struck, perhaps more so than meeting my favorite celebrities at Comic-con. I looked in reverence at the First Folio. I took pictures, though I now regret I didn’t take a selfie with the Folio. Being in the vault, in the presence of an exposed copy of the First Folio, I felt the need to be at my professional best.
It isn’t that studying Shakespeare filled me with stuffiness over the years. I relish how bawdy and funny many of the works are, but that this volume, these pages, that face in its original form from which so many likenesses derived, created an atmosphere that demanded respect.
I was asked to name my favorite play. Without hesitation, I said, The Tempest. They looked down at the Folio. I looked down at the Folio. My hands, however, hesitated, hovered over the volume. Duroselle-Melish allowed me to touch the corner of a page before helping me turn shallowly toward the first play in the Folio. And there it was, The Tempest, where it first appeared in 1623. The Folger does not use white gloves to touch the pages in their collection. As they shared, at least with the Folios, that after 400 years, if care is taken, what could happen to these pages from touching them as already happened.
Unless I am so honored to be in the presence of another First Folio in the future, Folger STC 22273 Fo. 1 no. 14 will always be my First Folio.
As the Folger shipped out copies of the Folio for their trips around America, special crates housed the various copies. Many venues submitted bids for Folio visits with proposals of creative displays and engaging experiences. The exhibits attracted thousands. This book, and the words it contains speak across time. Though its words may at times seem archaic to the modern ear, their emotion and insight cannot be denied.
That this wealth of human awareness resides in a single volume makes it all the more remarkable. For the most part, those insights were organized and transformed, if not originated by, one man. But this is not a book written with the intent to share Shakespeare’s own reflection on his thinking, or his opinions of politics, people, or process. The First Folio, which was collected with a near accidental contingency, continues to shape thought because it embodies Shakespeare’s mind not through directness, but by weaving insight through characters, narratives, and action.
Without the Folio Shakespeare might be just another run-of-the-mill writer known from a few random quartos that survived the ages. This book, conceived and developed by his colleagues, contributed to by peers with laudatory introductory materials, lifted the words beyond what was at the time base entertainment. The collection of the works in the First Folio made Shakespeare the Shakespeare we know. There is no other path.
Though the importance of The First Folio to literature cannot be denied—it was the first grand printing of any set of plays— this volume of plays, along with the poems, often belies the larger importance of it as a representation of the author. In the presence of the Folio one is not only confronted with literature but a historical context unique with exception of the New Testament, another work of literature designed to capture in words the being of a man.
Unlike the New Testament, however, which is, in its early chapters clearly intended as biography, The First Folio says nothing of the author saves the front matter. While these prefatory pieces undoubtedly played a role in creating the Shakespeare mythos, they offer no direct revelation. It is not the front matter that high school students read and perform, that great directors bend and shape into modernity, or that writers pay homage to on television, in films and on the stage. With Jesus, the Christian connection comes from his words and the words of those who knew him. With Shakespeare, we must garner any insight into the man from the characters who speak his mind.
No blunt euphemisms sum up Shakespeare into a golden rule. To understand Shakespeare one must purposefully grapple with this book. It must be read, all of it—for Hamlet and Lear offer no more understanding about Shakespeare than Puck or the Constable of Much Ado About Nothing. The character’s reveal Shakespeare not in the singular, but as a singularity, as he reinforces beliefs and discovers new insights, as he discards dogma, as he augments and questions his own theories through the course of his life. And all of that comes to us because the works were collected, regardless of how haphazardly or accurately, into a single volume that smooths out their editorial flaws by sheer statistical weight. The reverence for the First Folio derives from its transcription of a consciousness.
Within weeks of my visit to the Folger, I experienced perhaps the closest analog in art to seeing The First Folio. I meet Leonardo Da Vinci via The Last Supper at the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. One finds in that great decaying fresco the essence of Da Vinci. The flawed technique reflects his willingness to experiment—the composition his brilliance as an observer of humanity and a creator of metaphor—that The Last Supper survives suggests the esteem and reverence people still old for even his failed experiments. We find in the Last Supper and in Da Vinci’s notebooks a similar evolution, albeit more direct, that Folio provides for Shakespeare.
I write about popular culture because I want to meet authors and creators through their works, and in their own time. Art and literature capture moments of insight by men and women who project ideas across time. This work permits me to experience the past in ways rawer than most and to be intimately connected to today’s writers and artists.
In my own explorations, I have found that what distinguishes the mundane from the revelatory derives, be it from Shakespeare or Da Vinici, De Palma or Joss Whedon, Dickinson or Eliot, as much from the intensity with which a writer or artist or musician shares themselves in their works, as it does from his or her unique intellectual insights.
With the First Folio, editors Heminges and Condell codified the depth of spirit they recognized in their friend and colleague. They saw that in his work Shakespeare refined the dramatic transformation of his inner dialog to reflect observations and insights, joys, and disappointments. They knew these plays blurred rank and birthright. The editors recognized this accomplished life, and they found a way to immortalize their friend’s mind. Through the First Folio, we get to read Shakespeare and connect that mind to ours. And for anyone who really takes the leap, they know how profound an encounter that can be.
My thank you to the Folger for the honor and the opportunity.