The First Folio!: The Book that Gave us Shakespeare

–submitted by Ellie Schatz; photos by Valerie Johnson

dsc00571The First Folio!: The Book that Gave us Shakespeare is on exhibit at the Chazen Museum until December 11. On Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 9, nearly 40 Rotarians of the Special Events Fellowship Group and their guests enjoyed a foray into the life of Shakespeare and the preservation of his works, followed by a social hour at the University Club.

Folio is a term for a big book, usually reserved for royal, religious or reference materials. The Shakespeare folio was published in 1623, 7 years after Shakespeare’s death, the first folio in England devoted to plays. This complicated project, containing more than 900 pages, was put together by 2 of Shakespeare’s friends and acting colleagues. Of 233 copies remaining of the 750 that are estimated to have been printed, the one here is on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., carefully encased under glass and open to the Hamlet soliloquy, “To be or not to be.”

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The First Folio contains 36 plays, printed one right after another; The Tempest is the first. Eighteen of the plays had not appeared in print before the First Folio was printed. So we would not have Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like it, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, and several other plays were it not for this book.

Because of the way in which the First Folios were printed and have been handled over the ages, no two First Folios are alike. A finished First Folio in a calfskin binding cost about £1 in 1623, which today roughly equals between $150-$200. In 2001, a First Folio sold at Christies for just over $6.1 million. The most recent sale was in 2006, when a First Folio sold at Sotheby’s for $5.2 million.

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It is presumed that each play was first written down by Shakespeare in his own hand. This handwritten manuscript was most likely written largely in what was known as “secretary hand,” a small script that is hard for us to read today. The author’s manuscript was sent to a scribe or scrivener who copied it over, making what was called a fair copy, a more readable version. Usually, what went to the printing house was the fair copy of a play. There, a typesetter or compositor would read the copy and get to work. Since no copies of the plays have been found written in Shakespeare’s handwriting, the First Folio is the closest thing we have to the plays as Shakespeare wrote them.

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The exhibition also includes 6 panels adorning the walls of the room with general information on the folios and Shakespeare, as well as rooms with posters that have promoted admission to theaters featuring his plays around the world.

 

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