UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 05 Fall 16 Library
Sanjay Suchak

First Folio! 

Retracing tht Book that Gave Us Shakespeare at UVA

There is no overstating the impact of William Shakespeare on the world’s culture. Some would say he is the “be-all-and-the-end-all.” Others would say no one could ever “hold a candle to” the Bard, or that his mere existence created a “sea change” in the world of letters that will outlive us all, and that any discussion of the world’s greatest writers is a waste of breath as his place on the top of that list is a “foregone conclusion.”

Actor Julian Sanchez channels the Bard’s comedic side in the UVA Department of Drama's production of The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
(Photo: Michael Bailey)

Imagining a world without William Shakespeare is almost impossible to do, not just because of the classic works he left behind, but because of the way his words and phrases have become part of our everyday vernacular. Yet, such a world would likely have been ours if not for a little help from his friends.

The First Folio, published in 1623, includes 36 Shakespeare plays, 18 of which had never been printed before. Among these titles are many of the famous and most produced plays ever to spring from the Bard’s mind and pen, including Macbeth, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and so many more. The First Folio was published by a group of Shakespeare’s friends seven years after his passing. Earlier this fall, the world’s most famous book was on display at the Main Gallery of the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, as part of a traveling exhibition from the Folger Shakespeare Library called First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare.

The special display was part of a year-long celebration of Shakespeare at the library highlighted by an exhibit titled “Shakespeare by the Book: Four Centuries of Printing, Editing and Publishing” that will be on display through December of 2016.

In Shakespeare’s time, a folio was more expensive and more prestigious than a smaller quarto volume. To make a folio, sheets of paper were folded just once, creating two leaves and four pages; to make a quarto, pages are folded twice, creating eight pages. The First Folio represented the first time an author’s plays had been exclusively featured in this format, and also represented the first time that Shakespeare’s plays had been grouped into comedies, histories, and tragedies. It is believed that about 750 copies of the First Folio were printed. Adding to the fascination with the Folios is the fact that, because the text was proofed while printing was ongoing, each copy is slightly different. The Folger collection owns 82 of the 235 copies that survive today.

A miniature version of Yorick’s skull in Hamlet, designed by Jan and Jarmila Sobota in 2009, serves as a container for a tiny volume of quotations from the play.

(Photo: Shane Lin)

Termed “invaluable” by scholars, Shakespeare’s folios were originally offered for somewhere in the modern neighborhood of $200. Microsoft founder Paul Allen owns one for which he paid $6 million. Their value is further enhanced by the fact that they represent a sort of unintentional evolution of Shakespeare’s work. Scholars point out that early typesetters made corrections to each page that inevitably became part of the next iterations of the work. For this reason, the idea of the “authorized” works of William Shakespeare have become a sort of moving target, at best. The exhibit offers plenty of evidence of these changes by including the Second Folio, the Fourth Folio and fragments of the Third Folio. The Second Folio alone, which came along in 1632, offers more than 700 changes to the preceding edition.

Gallery visitors at the library saw the First Folio encased in glass and open to the words that stand today as perhaps the Bard’s most immortal: “To be or not to be.” The exhibit also includes a number of panels that provide further background on the significance of this rarest of rare books, and on Shakespeare’s work.

On the morning I visited, my “tour guide,” Molly Schwartzburg, curator of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, and I were interrupted by a visitor. The gray-haired woman, who spoke with a British accent, asked “Is this the First Folio?” Upon hearing that she had in fact come to the right place, the visitor ceremoniously bowed before the encased volume and began her own dramatic and slightly amended recitation. “Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”

It’s not the first such reaction Schwartzburg has heard about. “People frequently come in wanting to pay their respects to the volume as a way of paying homage to Shakespeare,” she said.

“People frequently come in wanting to pay their respects to the volume as a way of paying homage to Shakespeare,”
Molly Schwartzburg

And when you think about the importance of the First Folio, the reaction is hardly surprising. “Without the First Folio, we wouldn’t have Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, The Tempest and many other works,” Schwartzburg said.

In addition to its treasured status as it relates to Shakespeare, the First Folio also was historic in that it marked the first time a folio had been exclusively devoted to English language plays. One of those plays served as a centerpiece of the UVA celebration of the Bard thanks to a UVA Drama Department production of his madcap masterpiece, The Comedy of Errors, which was also part of the First Folio.

The First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeareis part of a 50-state traveling exhibition sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library Association in partnership with the Cincinnati Museum Center and the American Library Association. Folger officials estimate that more than half a million people have been involved in programs related to this project thus far. The University of Virginia will host the only exhibition in the Commonwealth. 

Photographic postcard details costume and production design in Julia Marlowe and E. H. Sothern’s performance of Romeo and Juliet in the nineteenth century.

(Photo: UVA Library Digital Production Group)

“I expect one of the reasons UVA was selected for the state of Virginia is that we have a very long history in the study of the book as a physical object,” Schwartzburg said, “and that a very important twentieth-century figure in Shakespeare scholarship, Charlton Hinman, did his Ph.D. in English here.”

She explained that mistakes were baked into the printing process at the time these books were created, due to the high cost of both time and materials. The printer would print a sheet, then hand it off to be proofed, while continuing to print. Once the proofing was completed, the printing stopped and corrections were made, but the several sheets containing errors were not discarded. When the books’ hundreds of sheets were put together into a single volume, each one contained a different combination of corrected and uncorrected pages. Every copy is therefore slightly--or significantly--different from the others.

Alexander Pope’s "corrected" edition of Shakespeare altered the Bard’s lines to make them conform to eighteenth century standards of versification
(Photo: UVA Library Digital Production Group)

“Before Hinman came along,” Schwartzburg said, “the standard method for comparing two copies of a book was to keep your finger on the same line on two different copies, then look back and forth line by line and compare. It was laborious and a high rate of human error was inevitable.” In the 1950’s Hinman created a mechanical comparison device called the Hinman Collator that revolutionized the study of the First Folio. Using an ingenious combination of binocular lenses, light, and mirrors, the device produced something like a “stereoscopic” photographic effect, enabling the scholar to view two copies’ page images as one. The most minute differences leap off the page when two copies are viewed in the collator, making accurate and swift comparison possible. Hinman used his device to compare 55 copies of the First Folio at the Folger Library, producing a landmark new edition and making numerous scholarly discoveries about the book’s printing in the process. Visitors to the exhibit can literally see how the device works by using a later Lindstrand Comparator, which employs the same principles. 

Model of a printing press from Shakespeare’s time constructed on a minute scale—shown here in comparison with the size of a penny.
(Photo: Shane Lin)

Another unique UVA connection comes in the form of the only early Shakespeare quarto owned by UVA, a 1619 edition of King Lear published by Thomas Pavier, who undertook a project to print ten of the Bard’s plays that year. Adding to the intrigue and importance of this early edition is the fact that the University actually had a complete set of these quartos that were lost in the Rotunda fire in 1895.

“Shakespeare by the Book: Four Centuries of Printing, Editing and Publishing” takes its visitors on a fascinating journey through the history of publishing, criticism and scholarship spanning from the 17th through the 20th Centuries. And it also stands as proof, to once again borrow his words, that when it comes to Shakespeare, there can truly never be “too much of a good thing.”

View Gallery Highlights!