It is the Folger’s first major Folio exhibit in six years and the only one in the library’s history to include such a large grouping of them, 12 in all, library officials said.
The exhibition is composed of more than a dozen glass cases in the Great Hall, showing Folios, interactive maps that display the books’ paths across the world, the lengths that collectors (particularly Folger) went to get them, narrative details about famous Folio thefts, and how scholars document each copy as an original.
There were no more than a few hundred copies of the fabled First Folio ever made, perhaps 500 to 750 copies total, with printing errors aplenty and changes made on the fly, and that curious portrait of “Mr. William Shakespeare” on the title page. It was such a problematic press run that no two copies have ever been found to be identical.
“For the publishers, it was an enormous economic risk,” says Anthony James West, one of the show’s two curators. “A book exclusively composed of plays, of folio size? But for theater-going Londoners, this was an event. It showed how highly regarded Shakespeare was, even a few years after his death.”
The coffee-table-size First Folio, printed seven years after the Bard’s demise, saved such plays as “Macbeth,” “The Tempest,” “As You Like It,” “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra” from oblivion. Fewer than half of the 36 plays in the collection (nearly all of Shakespeare’s dramatic works) had appeared in print before, and those were in individual, quarto-size copies not much bigger than one’s hand.
Without the oversize, roughly 900-page First Folio, the world would have almost certainly forgotten many of Shakespeare’s creations. There would not be Caesar’s iconic line of betrayal, “Et tu, Brute,” still in currency nearly four centuries later. There would be no Lady Macbeth, and thus no classic oration of guilt (“Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”). And there would not be Macbeth’s bitter summation of life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Printed almost four centuries ago by a syndicate headed by the father-and-son duo William and Isaac Jaggard, the book became the definitive source for Shakespeare performance, research and appreciation. Although not particularly rare by antiquarian standards (232 copies are known to still exist, but only about a dozen are in excellent condition) and of fairly modest monetary value on the world market (partial copies start at about $400,000, great copies for up to $6.2 million), the collected plays have become one of the world’s most studied books.