A major First Folio exhibit opens at the Folger Shakespeare Library

The Bard had it that “the play’s the thing.” Walking through the dark, cool corridors of the Folger Shakespeare Library, looking at copies, pristine and burned, of perhaps the most influential secular tome in the English language, it’s fair to wonder if the book isn’t sometimes the thing, too.

“Fame, Fortune, and Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio” is the Folger’s summer-long offering of its birthright: the world’s largest assembly of the 1623 book that was the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays. The exhibition, which began Friday and runs through Sept. 3, explores the history of the First Folio, explaining in the words of editors, owners, collectors, scholars and others how the collection’s significance grew throughout the world.

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.

Over the centuries, serious book and literary collectors simply had to have a copy. No one was more determined than Standard Oil executive Henry Clay Folger, who used his considerable fortune to build the world’s largest repository of First Folios in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (The library has 82 copies; the next-largest collection has 12.)

The existing copies of the book — worn leather bindings, fading type — can be so seductive that West, the British co-curator, has spent the past quarter-century finding and describing copies still in existence, down to wrinkles on pages. A former management consultant, he found himself so entranced with tracking down First Folios around the globe that it nearly drained his bank account by the time he published his landmark census in 2003.

“I burned up all my savings,” he says in the Library’s Great Hall, offering a tour of the exhibition’s most coveted items. “I was an expert in finance, but I wasn’t watching my own exchequer.”

The book’s magnetism also extends to the criminal class, points out Owen Williams, the assistant director of the Folger Institute and the show’s other curator.

A middle-aged, attention-starved British man named Raymond Scott walked into the Folger one day in 2008, pretending to be a champagne-sipping dilettante who had happened across a copy of a First Folio at a friend’s home in Cuba. In reality, he was a man deeply in debt, holding a copy stolen from Durham University in England in 1998. The staff at the Folger, and West, a senior research fellow at the University of London, documented that it was the stolen copy and helped convict Scott of possessing stolen goods. This most recent, highly-publicized theft is chronicled in the exhibition. (The only other known thefts in the past century: The Owens College copy in Manchester, England, was taken in 1972 and has not been seen since. The Williams College copy in Massachusetts was stolen in 1940 and recovered a short time later.)

Among the book’s historic features is the Martin Droeshout engraving on the title page, commissioned by Shakespeare’s friends, that is one of only two images of the playwright considered to be authentic. But printing problems abounded over the two years the book was in production, and “Troilus and Cressida” was such a late addition to the publication that it caused “three distinct issues” of the First Folio to be produced, according to “Foliomania!” the show’s book-size publication.

It was instantly popular, if not a runaway success; a Second Folio followed nearly a decade later, and then two more press runs. “A bound copy was about the cost of a coffee-table book today; expensive, but not outrageous,” says West.

Copies of the book began a slow migration out of England in the 18th century and today are spread throughout 12 countries. Most are in just four cities: Washington, New York, London and Tokyo. There are only three in the entire Southern Hemisphere.

Shows such as this thrive on detail, and one of the best explains how Folger became fascinated with Shakespeare after attending a March 1879 lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson titled, “Superlative or Mental Temperance” at Amherst College. The exhibit has his seat ticket: #33, Section A.

The poet spoke so movingly of Shakespeare that Folger was inspired to go buy a collection of Shakespeare’s works — thus setting into play one of the world’s greatest antiquarian expeditions.

Folger was a close trader, and not above being disingenuous when it suited his purposes in negotiations to amass his collection.

One of the original letters in the exhibition is dated Jan. 10, 1928, when Folger wrote to Ernest North, a book dealer with a First Folio that Folger wanted to buy. Folger said that North’s copy was overpriced and that he wasn’t having it: “I have never paid $50,000 for a First Folio,” Folger admonished.

This was, as they said in newspapers then and now, accurate without being correct: It was true he had never paid $50,000. He’d paid more than $52,000.

He got North’s copy for $47,500.

Fame, Fortune, and Theft:
The Shakespeare
First Folio

Through Sept. 3. Free to the public. Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-6000. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Sunday and federal holidays.

 
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