Seven years after William Shakespeare died in 1616, a collection of his plays was assembled into a single volume for the first time. Only 900 copies were printed—235 survive today. For the first time, one of those First Folios is at the University of Virginia, on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and on display at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library through October 26.
The opportunity for the loan became an excuse for a larger exhibition of UVA’s various Shakespeare-related materials in their collections, according to Dr. Molly Schwartzburg, curator of collections at the library.
“When we found that we had been selected to be a venue for the First Folio, we thought why don’t we select a few of our best items to accompany it,” says Schwartzburg. “And then we realized why would we do that work if we aren’t going to select all of our best items? Why don’t we make a whole exhibition out of it? So, we decided to build a large Shakespeare exhibition that would be up all year and then would adjust to accommodate the First Folio. The Folger project inspired us to go whole hog.”
The library went whole hog, indeed. Visitors to the gallery on the main level are treated to a trip through centuries of Shakespeare’s printed history. Early quarto-sized editions of his plays are on display, with texts that may have been authorized, or, just as likely, cribbed by scribbling bootleggers in his audiences. Piracy of entertainment began long before the Internet.
“UVA’s greatest strength is the history of the book,” says Schwartzburg. “Other institutions may be great in theater history. …We decided to look at the printing of Shakespeare up until the present day.”
Each copy of the First Folio is unique, owing to the fact that the typesetters made corrections to their sheets of paper as they worked, but did not discard the flawed drafts. It was a living document throughout its production, which mirrors the doomed struggle to identify definitive versions of any of Shakespeare’s plays.
“There is no such thing as a text of Shakespeare’s plays that is authorized by Shakespeare,” says Schwartzburg.
The plays likely changed even during the Bard’s own life. Scribes copied his drafts for the actors to use, with errors along the way. Like most playwrights, it’s possible he made changes to scripts based on the reactions of audiences and input from actors.
“A play in Shakespeare’s day was probably a fluid thing,” says Schwartzburg.
A comparison of the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy from various early printings of Hamlet shows wide variation. The first standalone quarto copy of Hamlet from 1603 is about a third shorter than what we are familiar with today, and many alternate lines are substituted. A 1604 edition was close to the First Folio version, but lacked a few key words.
Hamlet is now categorized as a “tragedy,” thanks to the First Folio.
“A key thing that happens with the First Folio is that it starts making claims about the text that don’t exist before,” says Schwartzburg. “It breaks the plays up into categories: tragedies, comedies and histories. …That has a huge impact on how you interpret them and has nothing to do with an intention of the author that you can return to.”
Eighteen of the plays had never been published before the First Folio and might otherwise have been lost. In fact, without the First Folio, Shakespeare might have been forgotten entirely.
The First Folio “tells us a lot about the significance of Shakespeare in the environment of 1622 when the project probably begins,” says Schwartzburg. “It tells of a legacy continuing beyond Shakespeare’s own lifetime, which isn’t the case with a lot of other very popular playwrights of the time whom we’ve never heard of today because they didn’t have someone going out and thinking it’s a good idea to publish and sell an edition of this person’s plays.”
Two of Shakespeare’s friends organized and edited the First Folio, giving it special legitimacy versus some of the standalone copies of his plays (which were never known to have been authorized by Shakespeare or edited by anyone with knowledge of what his intentions were for his work). John Heminges and Henry Condell, both actors in his troupe, the King’s Men, were close enough friends of the Bard to be named in his will.
Without Heminges and Condell, would anyone remember Shakespeare today? What about the thousands of words in the English language that he invented or popularized?
The First Folio led to a Second Folio in 1632 (also on display in the exhibit) with around 1,700 changes from the First Folio. When the Third Folio appeared in 1663, seven more plays were added but only six of those are now accepted as Shakespeare’s work.
Various editions of Shakespeare’s supposed plays blossomed in the centuries since. Editors censored some material and changed lines to fix rhymes that stopped working as accents changed. As generations of publishers have used Shakespeare’s name and work in whatever way that has suited them at a particular moment, the First Folio is the closest thing to a gold standard that actors, directors and fans have.
Contact Jackson Landers at firstname.lastname@example.org.