The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0146  Friday, 8 July 2011

From:         Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:         Friday, July 8, 2011
Subject:     First Folio Exhibit at the Folger Library

From The New York Times (Online Edition)


July 7, 2011

Venerating Sacred Relics of Shakespeare

WASHINGTON — Underground, not far from the handsome Great Hall at the Folger Shakespeare Library where a fascinating exhibition is on display, just beyond the institution’s reading rooms, down its back stairs and through a vault door that seems far more imposing than the “rocks impregnable” Shakespeare invoked in a sonnet, there is a wall on which more than 70 volumes lie flat on mounted shelves.

Each book has a different color; each has different dimensions. Some are boxed, others bound in goatskin. But once they were nearly identical. Each was printed in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. And despite the motley array, these shelves hold one-third of the world’s surviving copies of a book that one scholar called “the greatest contribution made in a single volume to the secular literature of any age or country.”

That book is the Shakespeare First Folio. Beginning in 1893, and for the next 35 years, 82 copies were obsessively purchased by the library’s founder, Henry Clay Folger. Only 232 such folios still exist anywhere. And since the highest price paid for one was more than $6 million in 2001, the fiscal value of Folger’s collection may be getting closer to the worth of the literary riches found within.

Those riches are something that this exhibition — “Fame, Fortune & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio” — nearly takes for granted, which it has every right to, given the Shakespearean halo that hovers over the Folger. One copy of the First Folio is always on view here (and online). This show displays another 10 Folios from the library’s vaults (along with one on loan from a private collector).

[ . . . ]

[The First Folio] also shows that just after Shakespeare’s death, his stature was considerable. It was printed in a size reserved for great classics and lectern Bibles. And it was prefaced by robust front matter, including a tribute by Ben Jonson (“Thou art a Monument, without a tombe,/And art alive still, while thy booke doth live”), along with the famous Martin Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare. There is only one other volume in the English language that has been as powerful and influential — the King James Bible, published, amazingly, just 12 years before the First Folio — and it will be the subject of another Folger exhibition in September.

But this show, whose curators are Anthony James West, a research fellow at University College London, and Owen Williams, the Folger Institute’s assistant director, is not meant as a testimonial but as a survey of that book’s material life over nearly four centuries: how it fared in the marketplace and in the hands of its owners; how copies were damaged and restored; how scholars have analyzed its text; and even how it has been stolen and recovered.

[ . . . ]

The tale’s greatest tragedy may be that during each rebinding, margins were routinely sliced, eliminating historically valuable marginalia. The greatest sign of piety here may be an 1866 casket, carved from the wood of the recently fallen Herne’s Oak, an ancient tree mentioned in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” commissioned by a Folio owner to house her treasure. And the greatest evidence of Shakespearean lust may have been Henry Clay Folger’s relentless accumulation of 82 First Folios — the largest single collection in the world — a venture documented with examples of his negotiation and manipulation.

But who needs heightened Shakespearean drama when details have such a peculiar charm? We see a photostat of a forged letter of introduction from Middlebury College’s president, which, in 1940, allowed a shoe salesman to pose as an English professor and get his hands on a First Folio at Williams College. Working on behalf of a crime syndicate, he first measured the Folio’s dimensions and on his second visit brought a cut-down copy of “Reynard the Fox” in a cloth slip-on binding (also on display here). He exchanged “Reynard” for Shakespeare and walked out — a triumph, at least until he and the Folio fell into the F.B.I.’s hands.

The Folger is also displaying the Hinman Collator, a 450-pound apparatus invented in 1952 by the Folio scholar Charlton Hinman. Two Folios would be put in the collator, and through cleverly arranged mirrors, their images would be overlaid in a binocular viewer, making clear the textual and typographical variations in nearly every copy. What would have been a 40-year labor of comparison and identification was completed in 19 months.

All of this means that the exhibition’s focus is not on the Folio’s content, but on matters that might seem incidental to it. Scholarly dissections of printing processes, surveys of the rare-book market, fetishistic treatment of prized possessions could all be considered secondary, perhaps much ado about very little.

But it is through such material concerns that humanity pays homage to what is less easily grasped. Original documents become hallowed as they absorb the reverence of centuries. And in the history of that reverence we begin to understand something about those documents’ meanings.

Consider the exhibition’s strangest artifact. The 19th-century American actor Edwin Forrest so revered Shakespeare that he purchased a First Folio and kept it in a specially built glass case. In his will he left it, along with much of his wealth, to the establishment of a Home for Decayed Actors in Philadelphia. But after his death a fire raged, reducing the Folio largely to ashes. Those charred pages are still kept at the University of Pennsylvania in Forrest’s case, “perhaps the only book,” the show tells us, “whose remains are preserved in a specially constructed sarcophagus” — or, to reverse Jonson’s tribute, creating a tomb without a monument.

It is a measure of the Folio’s importance, though, that its valuable ashes were considered too fragile to travel. So the Folger recreated them. We are looking at a replica of a destroyed book, an eerie tribute to its enduring life.

“Fame, Fortune & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio” runs through Sept. 3 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street S.E., Washington; (202) 544-7077, folger.edu.

[Editor’s Note: The complete New York Times is now a subscription web site. I have access to it since I subscribe through my Kindle. Should anyone wishing to read the full text and who cannot access it online, contact me and I will see that you get a full copy of the text. –Hardy Cook]

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