Happy 400th, First Folio!
On Wednesday, November 8th, an important anniversary was celebrated in ways both large and small in many parts of the world. Here in Santa Cruz, California, the 400th anniversary of what has come to be known as the First Folio was celebrated in the Special Collections and Archives at UCSC too. Four hundred years ago, Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, as it was known then, was entered into the Stationers’ Register on November 8, 1623.
Literature professor and Shakespeare scholar Sean Keilen and Teresa Mora, head of Special Collections and Archives, had long hoped to have an exhibition for the event, but as the time drew near, they began to realize that their busy schedules would probably not afford them the time they’d need to do it justice. But Enter, Stage Right: Lawrence G. Van Velzer & Peggy Gotthold, the owners of Foolscap Press, a local establishment that makes beautiful, handcrafted books and other printed items. With their help as well as that of Katie O’Hare, a doctoral student in the UCSC literature department,Keilen and Mora were indeed able to install a worthy exhibition on the Folio and its significance in time for this important day.
Although UCSC does not have a copy of the original Folio, they do have a facsimile copy which was on display (and one we were able to thumb through) as well as many original works that are relevant to the exhibition, including works that would have influenced Shakespeare’s education and subsequent thought. As I learned from an online lecture series put together by Sean Keilen and UC Irvine’s Julia Lupton a couple of years ago (YouTube link below), Shakespeare’s thoughts did not come to him out of the blue, but from writers like Ovid and Erasmus and many others. Through the Bard, we all drink from the stream of older western thought. How wonderful, then, to see the books in the editions Shakespeare would have known. Although some of these works are in Latin, and so unreadable to many of us, luckily Professor Keilen had provided interesting commentary on each of the books in the exhibit, which was displayed (as printed by Foolscap Press) alongside the cabinets.
This may sound like a very solemn undertaking, but the event was a festive and well attended one, with generous swag in the form of Foolscap printed texts that one could take home of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy as rendered in the 1603 and 1605 quartos,and on the reverse side, the twice as long Folio version. (Wonderful!) And there were also amazing cookies with designs from the title page of the First Folio, the crest from Shakespeare’s coat of arms, and his initials as reproduced from a document he had once put pen to.
There were also stickers.
I must admit that although I have long known that there were both Folio and Quarto versions of Shakespeare’s works, and that there are variations between their texts of individual plays, I’d never bothered myself much about the difference between the two. At some point I at least learned that a folio is considerably larger than a quarto in size. But seeing Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s delightful production of The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson this past summer changed all that. The action takes place in the period not long after Shakespeare’s death, when two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell, realize that Shakespeare’s work may not long outlast him—or them, for that matter. The play is an entertaining way to learn about what it took to get the First Folio published. (A lot.)
In the question period after the performance I saw, an audience member stood up and said with some emotion that, watching the play, he had realized how much of his life had been enriched by seeing Shakespeare’s plays over the years and he suddenly had a dismaying glimpse of what his own life would have been without them. It was a little like Scrooge being visited by various Christmas spirits. What was, what might have been.
As Sean Keilen pointed out in the brief remarks section of the gathering, the great majority of the plays of the Elizabethan theatre have been lost. The First Folio saved 18 of Shakespeare’s plays from probable oblivion. It is estimated that more than 3000 plays were produced on the Elizabethan stage between 1567 and 1642. Only 543 playtexts survive, or about 18%. Without the insight and effort of Heminge and Condell, many of the plays we know and love would have joined countless others on the ashheap of history.
How wonderful, then, to see Foolscap Press’s beautiful prints of quotations from each of the eighteen above the display cases. Looking around at them I was struck by how from each print I looked at, some wise or thoughtful comment would leap out at me as if I had never heard it, even from plays I think I know fairly well. How nice for all of us, that the Humanities Department and Special Collections, Santa Cruz Shakespeare and Foolscap Press have all played their part this year to bring the First Folio to our attention and remind us of the riches we have by chance or luck inherited.
Happy 400, First Folio. Wishing you at least 400 more!
(For those interested in visiting it, the First Folio Exhibit will be up through January of 2024. It is located in the Special Collections and Archives at the McHenry Library at the center of campus, 414 McHenry Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95064.)
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. She has published stories in a variety of literary journals. The recent anthology Annihilation Radiation from Storgy Press, includes one of them. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.