I love Shakespeare, but when I found out that the library was planning to exhibit First Folio for a month, I had to reach deeeeeeeeeeep into my pockets to find any fucks to give.
Folger Shakespeare Library is sending First Folio on a 50-state tour in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and our library is one of only five other public libraries who have the opportunity to host this collection, which shows how cool our library is. (The other institutions are mostly universities and museums.) But. So?
I’ve been to Shakespeare’s house. A tweedy egghead who worked there (and who I loved) pointed to a spot on the floor of Shakespeare's house and said, "That's where the Bard was born, approximately." And I teared up, approximately. I’ve seen shows at the Globe and at the Swan in Stratford. Why would I risk a precious lunch break or even a little bit of an evening to look at golden book full of plays I already know? That doesn't sound half as good as a YouTube rabbit hole sesh, or even watching a mildly acclaimed Netflix series.
As is true of all subjects in life, I didn't really get pumped about First Folio until I spoke with someone who was way smarter than me and then saw the book for myself. But to figure out why I should go in the first place, I called up Professor Loreen Giese, a Shakespeare scholar over at Ohio University.
“I applaud [the Folger Shakespeare Library] for sending [the First Folio] around the country," she said. "They are providing people with a unique opportunity to see this important cultural and literary artifact. The First Folios are fragile and priceless."
According to the Folger, “Researchers believe that 750 or fewer copies of the First Folio were printed; 233 survive today, of which 82 are in the Folger collection,” and each of the First Folios is slightly different in some way. Because of their fragility (and value), libraries and other entities who own these artifacts understandably keep them close to their chests.
I asked Professor Giese whether the First Folio, as copy for the event claims, really is the “the book that gave us Shakespeare.”
“That’s half accurate,” she said. “Which is to say that half of the plays scholars attribute to Shakespeare only appear in the First Folio.” She added that the First Folio is tremendously important, since it is the only source for some provocative and well-known plays, including The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, and Coriolanus. First Folio is also the text that gives us Macbeth and, my favorite, The Tempest.
In addition, “The First Folio carries weight because some scholars think that it includes Shakespeare’s final version of the plays,” Giese said. But we should also consider the Quartos.
The First Folio was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death, but many of the Quartos, which represent half of the plays we attribute to Shakespeare, were published during Shakespeare’s lifetime. There are all kinds of different quartos—some of them are called “good quartos” and some of them are called “bad quartos”—and different versions of different plays appear in each. Two very different versions of Hamlet exist, for instance.
The different versions exist for many reasons, but partially because of fierce competition between theater companies. Once a playwright sold a play to company, the company owned the text. To prevent actors and other theater professionals from snatching whole scripts and producing them as their own, companies would give actors only the transcription of lines from the part that they were playing. “In that transcription process and during rehearsals, you could have changes introduced,” Giese said.
Editors consult the Quartos along with the Folios when they do modern editions, and Giese says, given the textual fluidity between the Folios and the Quartos, some textual scholars work only on the rich relationships among these texts.
A well-known example of an important difference comes from Act I, scene ii of Hamlet. The Second Quarto’s version of the scene has the dour (or is he manic and anxious, as Benedict Cumberbatch would have him?) prince saying “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,” while the First Folio has him saying “O that this too too solid flesh would melt.” Professor Giese points out that “solid flesh” is anatomical, while “sullied” introduces a moral consideration and piles on the self-deprecation. These distinctions influence different interpretations of Hamlet, which in turn influence the way we see ourselves and understand ourselves through these plays.
But what’s so cool about looking at the actual book? Giese says, “In modern editions of Shakespeare texts, editors make changes to the punctuation, stage directions, characters names, and wording. In many textbooks, the textual instability appears stabilized.” So, looking at the First Folio, actually reading the words pressed to the page nearly 400 years ago, means you get to see for yourself all the "imperfections," the ink globs, missing stage directions, variations in names, questionable punctuation, etc.—the dirty version of Shakespeare.
“We will never know what [Shakespeare] intended,” Giese said, “Exploring the First Folio on its own or in relation to the Quartos enriches our understanding of what is a text, and, as we celebrate Shakespeare’s enduring legacy in 2016, what is a Shakespeare play,” Giese said.
Everybody wants to know what Hamlet means or what Romeo and Juliet means, but Giese is saying that there's no definitive Shakespeare text. When Shakespeare's plays were plucked out of the air and pressed onto the page, his work became literature, not a linguistic score relegated to the time-bound stage. When that happened, when Shakespeare's works became text, he became subject to the mutability of text. There are only interpretations, only arguments, no fixed meanings.
And so I walked up to the 8th floor of the library, filled with all of these hallowed, scholarly notions of the text. I peered into the special case that the library constructed to hold that particular copy of First Folio and then began to read Hamlet's immortal lines. After a few seconds I started cracking up:
I had totally forgotten that they used the "long s" in old books, which looks like an "f" to me. I read the whole speech to myself silently, but I heard that weird cartoon voice in my head. When I got to "fleepe" I couldn't take it and laughed out loud in the quiet room. "And by a fleepe, to fay." Kill me. I love it.
But my childish response only proves Giese's point. The most interesting thing about Shakespeare's text is what you bring to it, how you interact with it. Going to see the book for myself ended up estranging Shakespeare's text, refreshing it for me, giving me the pleasure of reading something I already knew but as if for the first time. That's a pleasure you can only access by looking at the book itself.
The room with the First Folio also features the Third Folio, which brought us Pericles. That book is open to the "All the world's a stage" speech from As You Like It.
If all this textual studies porn isn't doing it for you, the library's also doing a month's worth of Shakespeare related programing. "The Bard in a Bar" events look cool if you like the idea of getting a good beer-drunk on and watching Henry IV. The Shakesqueer event also looks good, which the library describes as "a wild, madcap evening to showcase the queer side of Shakespeare and his work!"
Whatever you're into, the First Folio exhibit is certainly worth a full lunch break, or even a good chunk of a weekday evening.