The Book's The Thing

Sep 2, 2016

One of 82 of the Folger Library's copies of the 900-page First Folio edition of William Shakespeare's collected plays is in Boise for three more weeks. The nearly 400-year-old book is opened to Hamlet's "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy.
Credit Marcel Pacatte / Boise State Public Radio

The first collection of Shakespeare's plays, printed nearly 400 years ago, is in Boise for three more weeks, and on Thursday night the world's foremost Shakespeare scholar delivered the keynote speech of the celebration surrounding the famed First Folio's stop here.

Today, we revere them. So much so, in fact, that they're worth millions. One was purchased for just under $6 million, another for just over. Some are secured in vaults. One had to be sold because its owner couldn't afford the insurance.

People attempt to pass off forgeries as the real deal; others have stolen them, both to fence or to keep. And the one in Boise right now is so valued that it has an around-the-clock security detail to stave off any vandal or thief's malevolence.

But back in the day -- the 1600s, to be precise -- they weren't that big of a deal. These books were put through the paces, used and abused rather than put under a bell jar for show. Exhibit A is the particular edition of the now-revered book with the paw prints of a cat trailing across a page.

Dozens more are riven with tobacco burns and wine stains, the familiar purplish rings from glasses set upon their pages. Some, through the centuries, have been gnawed by rats; others by worms.

Almost all have some sort of handwritten notation, the Elizabethan Renaissance equivalent of highlighting, be it in the margins or in the text, scribbles, underlinings, a child's scrawl and even personal edits that reflect the taste of the owner.

To the scholar who has painstakingly examined almost every single one of the 234 copies known to exist today, practically page by page, they all are different, quite literally, and each has its own personality because of its provenance. And that is what fascinates him.

"Every copy of every folio is unique," said Eric Rasmussen, a world renowned Shakespeare First Folio scholar who is in Boise this week and who spoke Thursday night at Boise State University's Ron and Linda Yanke Family Research Center, where, until Sept. 21, the public can view one of the First Folios of the plays of William Shakespeare.

The First Folio -- the first known collection of Shakespeare's plays -- is considered by many to be the single-most important work of English literature.

Rasmussen, in his keynote, explained why.

He said the published plays, collected by two actors in Shakespeare's troupe a few years after the playwright died, are the closest thing we have to the realized productions: the plays as Shakespeare intended them to be performed.

He also said that the publication of the First Folio in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death 400 years ago this spring, marked a flashpoint.

Although popular and appreciated in his time, Shakespeare's plays weren't considered valuable enough to commit to print: They were for performing, not for reading. But that changed.

"It's the exact moment in history at which this change occurred," Rasmussen said, both for drama itself and for Shakespeare's work. Members of his troupe and contemporary poet and playwright Ben Jonson, an admirer, said, "We should treat these [plays] as literature."

Rasmussen, who teaches at the University of Nevada in Reno, said that previously the folio form was reserved for serious publication, such as works of religion and history. "It's the first time drama was printed in folio."

The term folio described the method of printing, in which a sheet of paper was folded once. Other common forms were quarto, in which a sheet was folded twice, and octavo, in which a sheet was folded three times. The actual size of the sheet could vary.

And so the plays were collected -- 36 of 37 known works -- and, probably, Rasmussen and other scholars and historians estimate, 750 copies were printed.

No one knows for sure what happened to the rest, although, Rasmussen said, "We know when some were lost." One went up in the flames of the Chicago Fire in 1871, another went down in 1854 on its way to its new owner, a collector in New York City, when the ship the Arctic sank off the coast of Newfoundland.

In addition to the individual personalities each copy has because of its owners' markings, Rasmussen pointed out that because of the printing methods employed in the 17th century, no two known copies are printed exactly alike. Corrections were made on the fly, and copies with errors were sold just the same as the ones later in the run.

Another point of historical fascination, Rasmussen said, is the "interesting disconnect between what we think of as 'Shakespeare' and what [Elizabethan Renaissance people] thought."

"The history plays were the best-sellers then," he said. "They don't do so well today."

The First Folio also shaped the Shakespeare canon and how his work is studied. Instead of a straight chronology, the plays were grouped by type: the histories, the tragedies and the comedies.

The copy of the First Folio that is in Boise is one of 82 that are among the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., the world's largest holding of the edition. First Folios are being displayed in one place in each of the 50 states as part of a yearlong commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 1616.

In response to a question from a member of the audience Thursday night, Rasmussen talked about how Americans have a much more personal and interactive relationship with Shakespeare than the British, who hold him, perhaps, in a more formal regard.

"We have a great tradition of festival Shakespeare," Rasmussen said, citing the annual Idaho Shakespeare Festival as one good example of that communion, through which a series of plays are performed, usually outdoors, over a period of time instead of serial runs, with the audience often sitting or reclining on blankets spread on the ground.

"I think there's something really culturally fascinating about that."

Remaining Folio events, including the final night's panel discussion on how the First Folio got to Boise State, followed by a performance by Idaho Dance Theater, can be found here.