Elizabethtown College is hosting an original copy of the Shakespeare anthology as part of the Folger Shakespeare Library First Folio tour. A preview event on the evening of Nov. 6 introduced the exhibition to the campus community.
Dr. Zachary Lesser, a Shakespeare scholar and Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered the keynote address at the kickoff event. Entitled “First Folios, Lost Quartos, and the Meaning of Hamlet,” the discourse showcased Lesser’s expertise in Shakespeare and material texts in relation to the First Folio.
The Folio, published in 1623, is regarded as the first formal binding of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays and includes works such as “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra” that might otherwise have been lost to time. Seven years after his death, two of The Bard’s acting troupe friends worried that the works that were “in danger of being lost or corrupted with the wrong text being presented, so they wanted to produce an authoritative edition,” Lesser said.
However, the professor pointed out in an interview that the synthesis of the plays into an official volume was not as comprehensive as commonly believed: Shakespeare’s collaborative works are missing, as are his sonnets. But considering the lack of Shakespearean manuscripts beyond a very plausible scrap of paper, this anthology affords the continuation of the playwright’s talent.
Lesser’s presentation featured many images of original copies of folios that substantiated his analysis of the work as present day evidence of how the reception of Shakespeare has changed over time. “Without the First Folio, our idea of Shakespeare would be very different than it is, absolutely,” he said. “Would he have become the most canonical writer in the English language, the most praised writer in the English language? I’m not sure.”
Four years prior to the Folio’s publication, an assembly of 10 plays into a “quasi-collection,” as Lesser referred to it, gave only a brief idea of the Shakespearean canon.
The poorly bound 1619 edition of the anthology provides evidence for collectors of the different alterations to these books throughout history until they reached the libraries that treasure them today. Such increases the significance of the First Folio’s maintained readable quality.
“Binding matters,” Lesser said. “We can only read what survives, after all.”
While the Folio is not perfect, survive it has. Over 200 copies exist today, with 82 owned by Folger that are alternated between exhibitions.
Eight Folios regularly reside in Pennsylvania, including two at the University of Pennsylvania, which Lesser admitted he has brought to his first year seminar, and one at Carnegie Mellon University. The First Folio’s visit to Etown brings it to a part of the state that might otherwise not see it.
Lesser believes that the College’s exhibit helps organizations such as the Folger Shakespeare Library balance the provision of access to rare materials while still preserving them. The Folios that visit schools and libraries are carefully guarded at all times so that their continued display is a possibility.
At each location it visits, the Folio is open to Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, a decision Lesser called “inevitable.” The display of the speech is intended to serve as a “symbol for Shakespeare’s greatness, for better and for worse.”
Because the speech has become so famous and familiar, Lesser expressed worry that it might become hackneyed. “Hamlet” is Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play, “But it’s also his least known play,” Lesser said.
Two quartos, or pamphlets, give two different looks at drafts of “Hamlet.” The second quarto from 1604 contains a soliloquy that looks like the one in the First Folio, in which “[Hamlet] dissolves the self into intellectual abstraction,” Lesser said.
The first quarto, Q1, which was published the preceding year, leads to a different idea about the afterlife, in which the apparently pious character begins with the same question but then signals his fear of The Last Judgment.
The editorial differences in the drafts Lesser outlined in his address serve as a “reminder of the precariousness” of human culture of keeping and sharing information through material texts. The differences in editorial decisions allow us to trace the publishing trends over time, which can lead to increased literary cultural awareness.
The contrast of the works demonstrates differences in interpretation at the individual level. In some First Folio copies, marginalia provide insight to specific, very personal proverbial wisdom that can be applied to everyday life. The continued sharing of these understandings at institutions like Etown broaden the impact of Shakespeare even further.
“I think it’s great that people can come and see this book,” Lesser said. Coming into contact with the physical book, even behind glass, can have an inspirational impact on visitors, despite not being able to physically read it.
“I hope that coming into a somewhat mediated contact with the first Folio itself will really inspire people to go reread the plays,” he said.
After the keynote address, Jennifer Besse of the Etown English department questioned the effects of the digitization of Shakespeare on the accessibility and appreciation of his writing, to which Lesser responded that he has observed it having a “paradoxical good effect,” creating hype about the book and its included plays.
“I was pleasantly surprised to hear him integrate the meaning of the plays so well with the actual physicality of the book,” Besse said of Lesser’s presentation.
The Penn professor wants viewers of the First Folio at Etown to understand the value of preserving the public institutions and maintaining access, both physical and digital, in stimulating a wave of Shakespeare scholarship. “First Folio gave us the Shakespeare that we know today. Thank it for preserving plays that might otherwise not have survived,” he said.
The First Folio! exhibit is open to the public in the High Library now until Dec. 4. A student art gallery, Will’s Words: A Shakespeare Art & Design Exhibit, will run simultaneously in the library.
The calendar of additional events features guest speakers at Bowers Writers House, group tours and teaching workshops. The 2016-2017 Global Film Festival features international renditions of Shakespeare works and a theatre troupe of Etown students will be surprising Elizabethtown residents with Pop-Up Shakespeare performances at popular places around town, including Folklore Coffee & Company and the Elizabethtown Public Library.
For more information about First Folio! at Etown, visit www.etown.edu/library/firstfolio or email High Library instruction and outreach librarian Joshua Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org.