Shakespeare’s First Folio has been in the news again recently due to two new exhibitions featuring this most famous of books.
The Folger Shakespeare Library’s summer exhibition in Washington, DC, will be Fame, Fortune and Theft, looking at the book’s cultural significance as well as examining how it has been studied and collected over the centuries before becoming the highly-prized object it is today. It will also cover the story of the theft of the University of Durham’s copy and its recovery in 2008, in which the Folger took a crucial part. This story was the subject of a TV documentary in 2010, Stealing Shakespeare.
Co-curating this exhibition is Anthony James West, who has examined all the existing copies of the First Folio in existence and published an authoritative census of these copies. Called as an Expert Witness for the Crown Prosecution Service in the Durham Folio trial, he was also responsible for the identification of the First Folio held by the Craven Museum in Skipton, Yorkshire. In March 2010 he was at the opening of the Craven Museum’s exhibit of the Folio, the only one on display in the north of England.
Fewer than 50 copies of this book remain in England from the 700 or so that were originally published in London in 1623. Three copies are in Stratford-upon-Avon in the care of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, one of which is on permanent display and seen by all visitors to Shakespeare’s Birthplace as part of the Life, Love and Legacy presentation. In all 232 copies still exist, this high proportion illustrating the value the books have always had for their owners. Eleven copies will be displayed in the Folger’s exhibition.
The Folio’s importance for Shakespeare’s reputation as an author is that it published for the first time around half of his plays including Macbeth, Twelfth Night and The Tempest, which would otherwise probably have been lost. Several digital facsimiles are available to view on the internet, including this one from the Folger Shakespeare Library.
It’s also important as a testament to the regard in which Shakespeare was held by his contemporaries. The book was put together by two of Shakespeare’s fellow-actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell. They explain that they have done this work “only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our SHAKESPEARE”. Writing of the plays, they write “Do not envy his friends the office of their care and pain to have collected and published them…as he conceived them”. They urge us to “Read him, therefore, and again, and again”.
The prefatory material contains many phrases about Shakespeare which have become famous in their own right. Ben Jonson wrote “He was not of an age, but for all time” and coined the phrase “Sweet swan of Avon”.
The idea that Shakespeare’s real monument is the book is repeated in several of the contributions. Leonard Digges celebrates the power of the printed word:
when that stone is rent,
And Time dissolves thy Stratford monument,
Here we alive shall view thee still.
There’s no better argument for standing up for the libraries which care for and make available our written cultural heritage.