The First Folio of Shakespeare

The First Folio of Shakespeare

The First Folio of Shakespeare

The First Folio of Shakespeare

Excerpt

The Folger Shakespeare Library is known for many things, but its most celebrated distinction is the possession of approximately one-third of the surviving First Folios of Shakespeare's plays. Many people know this, but relatively few can provide a coherent definition of a First Folio, let alone an explanation of the significance of these notable volumes.

The ignorance that surrounds the First Folio is not limited to the general public. Indeed, the book enjoys almost totemic status among book collectors and the legions of the Bard's devotees; and like a ritual object, it has been allowed to exist within an aura of mystery, if not actual mystification. Surely there is something remarkable about the fact that of the many thousands of early English imprints in the Folger Library, the Folios are the only books that have never been catalogued. Only in the last few months has the Library undertaken the first steps needed to remedy this situation.

Moreover, we at the Folger have done our share to contribute to the sense of awe surrounding the Folios. By long-established custom, we exhibit one of them in the Great Hall, so that the public may see an example of this treasure of civilization. This emphasis on the uniqueness of the First Folio is a bit misleading, and for us, perhaps even a bit self-serving. The plain truth is that the First Folio, leaving aside its indisputable cultural importance, is not a particularly rare book. This library possesses thousands of books which are far less common (most of them not nearly as important, to be sure).

Yet the First Folio is a landmark publication in terms of the preservation and editing of Shakespeare's plays, as well as the history of the book. This exhibition explains precisely why and how this is so. Its curator, Peter W. M. Blayney, has selected 24 of the Folger's First Folios, together with four fragments, in order to illuminate their similarities and differences. In analyzing the Folios--both in their cases and in the text of this masterly essay--Dr. Blayney puts his vast knowledge of the subject at our disposal, often with the energy and deductive skill of a detective. He notices how Folios differed from one another even as they left the printing house in 1623, how they then proceeded to develop individual traits as they passed in and out of the hands of binders, booksellers, and different (and indifferent!) owners across the centuries. He explains how a book like this was made, by whom, and for whom; what it cost, and what effects changing attitudes toward Shakespeare had on the edition's preservation. He interprets the activities of Mr. and Mrs. Folger as collectors, and reveals how their particular values and insights both derived from and helped to shape the views of their contemporaries.

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