When giving tours as a docent at Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, I gleefully relished showing off a digital copy of a 400-year-old book. The words in the book are important for what people have done with them since they were written. It’s also impressive that the book was published by a group of collaborators to not only honor the author, but to preserve his works for live theater.
The book is the First Folio and the author is William Shakespeare. This docent liked to introduce it as “The Actor’s Bible”.
In the Folger exhibition area, visitors can view pages of one of the Folger’s 82 First Folios (about one-third of the 233 known to still exist). You don’t have to be a visiting researcher to turn the pages of this copy. Anyone can enjoy touching this Folio–via clever touch-screen technology, of course.
Now the Folger is taking the First Folio on the road.The book is visiting each of 50 states in addition to DC and Puerto Rico during 2016 via some 23 museums and 20 universities and other locations. The closest stop to Pittsburgh? The Museums of the Oglebay Institute, Wheeling, West Virginia, will display the First Folio, May 9-June 12.
In the 21st century, there is no shortage of access to the First Folio online. The Folger has published a record number of digital files of its mammoth collection online where you can also see all of First Folio 68.
You may ask, what’s a Folio? And why was this book the first one if there are so many?
Rewind to 1616. William Shakespeare has been again living with his wife Anne at his home New Place in Stratford-Upon-Avon following his long career as a playwright, theater owner, and occasional actor in London. He passes away on the day since traditionally celebrated as his birthday, April 23. Through his arrangement Holy Trinity Church (where he was baptised in 1564), he was interred under the church’s altar in Stratford-Upon-Avon. There you can see a bust of the writer (presumably made from his death mask) above the graves of William, his wife Anne, daughter Susanna and her husband Dr. John Hall. (As we wrote this news broke that an archeological scan of the Bard’s bones indicated his skull might be missing. Worry not, as we will soon explore this finding/legend/inspiration right here).
Seven years after the writer’s death, colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell published the Folio, taking its name from the size of the printer’s paper. (A quarto? That’s one-fourth that page size…and topic for another story).
Contemporary dramatist and England’s Poet Laureate Ben Jonson (Volpone, The Alchemist, The Silent Woman, among others) provided a tribute (excerpted here) in the Folio’s preface. Jonson salutes those choosing the writing life:
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part;
For though the Poets matter, Nature be,
His Art doth give the fashion. And, that he,
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses anvile: turne the same,
(And himselfe with it) that he thinkes to frame;
Or for the lawrell, he may gaine a scorne,
For a good Poet’s made, as well as borne.
The 36 plays as printed in the First Folio include 18 not published in Shakespeare’s lifetime. They provide many clues as to how the works were first presented. As all plays were performed in daylight in such theaters as the Rose and the Globe, text establishes such aspects as the time of day or the weather. Stage directions are specific and some are still used to this day. “Exit, pursued by a bear” is one of the most colorful.
The most effective way to experience Shakespeare’s is to “hear a play”, as audiences did in Shakespeare’s day. We “hear” a play for the scripts meant to heard, not read. Indeed, many in the original audiences were not literate.
More power to readers who like to pick up a Shakespeare play and curl up with a cup of tea for a tragedy, comedy, or history. More often, we experience more at live performance, a movie version, or even an audio recording–so powerful are these words when heard. (Never mind those who argue that “William Shakespeare” did not write the plays credited to him; that’s another discussion.) And don’t think badly of that teacher who had you study the plays by reading. Be thankful for those speeches you had to memorize and deliver in school; even the act of memorization feeds your brain function. And I’ll bet you still remember much of that speech, don’t you?
What’s also significant about the First Folio is that his theatrical collaborators made it happen after the playwright’s death. So it’s a kind of miracle, really, that 36 plays were recorded this way, likely drawing on a certain actor’s turn of phrase that stuck or how someone remembered particular lines or speeches.
In the rehearsal of these works, the players would have received their “rolls”–literally a roll with only their parts and their cues. Hence, Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream declares he can play all the parts–cues and all. Actors would have indeed learned many of the “roles” in the company through their repetitive experience of rehearsals and performance. There was a prompter and many supports for the script being fully committed to memory by many.
The company of players in “The King’s Men” (as they entertained in the court of James I) would have designated lines for casting–young men played characters like Juliet and Desdemona. A more seasoned actor Richard Burbage played such roles as Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and Richard III and was in demand in other companies as well.
Somewhere in the world actors are performing a Shakespeare play as you read this. And over the next month, you’ll see more Shakespeare news than a prompter can shake a spear at. The echo of this attention may indeed seal the Bard’s fate. Will’s works will have new life in this spotlight along with his big book, also available in paperback.
Check out all the details of the First Folio tour here. When you visit the nation’s capital, see the digital version and more on a docent-led tour. Read more and plan your visit. And watch for more Shakespeare stories and fandom reported here as the world marks Will’s 400th death anniversary and his 452nd birthday on April 23.