Here at Bas Bleu, we’re not above gawking at celebrities. Literary celebrities, that is! And our editors enjoyed a rare sighting of one of the biggest names in books last week when Shakespeare’s First Folio rolled into town.
What, exactly, is a “first folio?” Well, in 1623, seven years after the now-iconic playwright died, a group of his friends and colleagues joined forces to publish a “folio” of his plays. According to the experts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., “A folio is a large book in which printed sheets are folded in half only once, creating two double-sided leaves, or four pages.” Pricier—and more prestigious—than the smaller-format quarto, which folded the printed sheets into quarters instead of halves, this particular folio was the first collection to organize Shakespeare’s plays into comedies, tragedies, and histories. Perhaps most important, it included eighteen plays that had never before been published, including Macbeth, The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, The Taming of the Shrew, Coriolanus, and Twelfth Night.
Around 750 copes of the First Folio were printed in 1623; only 235 still survive today. And because books were typically proofed at the same time they were printed, each copy is slightly different. In 2016, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, the Folger Library (whose collection of eighty-two First Folios is the largest in the world) joined forces with the Cincinnati Museum Center and the American Library Association to send the First Folio on tour of the United States.
For those who don’t know, Bas Bleu’s editorial office is located in the heart of Atlanta, where the company was founded in 1994. (Our call center, warehouse, and other important departments are now headquartered in northeastern Ohio.) Our editors were excited to discover the First Folio’s Georgia tour date would be at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, just a few short miles from our office. So we took a long lunch last Friday and raced over to campus to check it out!
At first look, we were startled by how large the book is—approximately 12″x8″, containing more than 900 pages, and weighing over four pounds. And the security guard probably got a kick out of how many times we said, “But it looks so good to be almost four hundred years old!” The Carlos Museum chose to display the First Folio open to Hamlet’s Act 3, Scene 1, when that brooding Danish prince wonders, “To be, or not to be? That is the question.”
As a bonus, the exhibit also featured Second, Third, and Fourth Folios from private collections. Turns out the First Folio’s sales were good enough to warrant reprints, in 1632, 1663, and 1685, respectively. The Second Folio featured minor corrections, while the Third and Fourth included additional plays (though not by Shakespeare) and “improvements” made to reflect the late seventeenth-century England in which they were published.
It’s staggering to realize that, without the First Folio, so much of Shakespeare’s work—the foundation of a significant portion of English literature and the modern English language—might have been lost forever. As field trips go, Bas Bleu’s visit to see the First Folio was an extraordinary one! If you weren’t lucky enough to catch this masterpiece on its First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare, be sure to add the Folger Shakespeare Library to your list of must-see literary sites.
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