Last Thursday we went to see Shakespeare’s First Folio, which is on tour of the nation right now. Some of you may have seen my pics on social media. As you may have guessed from the name of my website (and tagline), I’m fan of Shakespeare, and Hamlet in particular. So, of course, I had to see the First Folio on its national tour. Here’s some of my reflections on the folio and the experience of seeing it.
The folio was in a glass case in a small room in the Stark Gallery which is an art gallery in the student center, at Texas A&M. It was in better shape than I expected. There are only 233 First Folios left in existence (the Folger has 82), out of a print run estimated at less than 750. I don’t know how the Folger, who mounted the tour, decided which book went out on tour, but probably they sent one of the books which was in better shape, rather than one that was falling apart — or which was put together from pieces of other folios, something that was commonly done in the distant past. It was truly awe-inspiring to stand there and see the book which gave us 18 of Shakespeare’s plays that, prior to its publication, had never been printed. Without the first folio we wouldn’t have: All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VIII, Julius Caesar, King John, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, or The Winter’s Tale. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Shakespeare’s colleagues who brought out this edition and made it possible for these plays to come down to us through the ages.
The book, too, has come down to us through the ages. Looking at it I couldn’t help but think that this book has come to us through time, that it existed in what was, more or less, Shakespeare’s England. (It was published 7 years after his death.) This book existed in a time and place that only now exists in history books and our own imagination. I felt a strange sort of sensation, like I was teetering on the edge of time travel, because this book had, indeed traveled through time…and neither it nor I needed a Tardis to do it! It is extraordinary that something so ephemeral as a book made with organic materials has survived handling, use, weather, atmosphere, light (which can damaged art, including paper and ink), and people, to end up in front of me in College Station, Texas, with the Bard’s own words printed there, and me reading them, just as they were read by the printer, and the Jacobian readers of the time. (We tend to think of Shakespeare as “Elizabethan” but James ascended the throne while Shakespeare was still writing plays in London.)
What impressed me about the First Folio, was not just that it was old — I’ve seen old artifacts before — but that it was old and packed full of meaning. By tremendously expanding the printed work of Shakespeare, it ensured that his work — in all its mind-blowing brilliance — would survive. This book has had a huge impact on innumerable people over a vast span of time. It is old and packed with meaning for millions of people over hundreds of years. One usually doesn’t say something like that about a secular text. And not only is it packed full of meaning in general, it is packed full of meaning for me. I am a Shakespeare fan.
Words can live forever far more easily than books, because they can be passed down from person to person, as many historic utterances on great occasions were. But, in the absence of Bradbury’s Book People, great chunks of text cannot. For that we need documents and once people stopped carving their ideas into stone, the medium for recording people’s lives and their stories became tremendously less durable (though even stone can be broken or eroded, I’ll grant you). We value art, not just for its beauty, but for its transcendence. Art is transcendent in two ways: its content and also, with care, its physical form can transcend its own time. Shakespeare’s works are transcendent. The stories transcend their time. I am grateful that the First Folio was created, and that it has endured in both physical form and content. The world is a far richer place for the existence of the “lost plays” that the First Folio preserved from loss. I am enlightened not only by those plays, but by the experience of seeing this incredibly rare book which has passed down through time to that moment when I stood, rapt, before it.
For more about Shakespeare’s First Folio, including links to the tour and a digitized copy see: http://www.folger.edu/publishing-shakespeare#firstfolio.