In all my international peregrinations, I’ve never seen the First Folio – and experiencing it for the first time was thrilling.

The Press got a sneak peek of the wonderful exhibit at the Central Library, which is co-hosting the national exhibition’s only stop in California.

The tour, “First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare,” was organized by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It will visit all 50 states this year. A total of 18 First Folios (the Folger owns 82) will be on display during the tour; six will travel at any one time.

The 1623 book (published 7 years after Shakespeare died) comprises 36 of The Bard’s plays, which were compiled by John Heminge and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors, who were hoping to preserve them for future generations. Many of Shakespeare’s plays, which were written to be performed, were not published during his lifetime. Without the First Folio, 18 of the plays would have been lost to us completely. Those seminal 18 include “Macbeth,” “The Tempest,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Twelfth Night” and “Henry IV, Part 1.”

The beautiful 9th floor museum-quality art gallery at the Central Library provides a stunning setting for the exhibition, which also features costumes and artifacts from 81 years of Shakespeare at The Old Globe, and informational panels from the Folger, all flanked by a giant-sized photo of Shakespeare’s Globe on one end of the room, facing The Old Globe on the other.

At the rear of the gallery, in a climate-controlled case, is The Book (alas, since it’s open, you can’t see the cover).  The viewing page is from “Hamlet,” including “To be, or not to be” as well as “Get thee to a nunnerie.”

Here are a few factoids and tidbits I can pass along, gleaned from the brief speeches by Councilmember Lori Zapf, Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein and actor Richard Thomas, currently appearing as Jimmy Carter  in “Camp David” at The Globe (best known as John-Boy from “The Waltons,” last here in 2014 to play Iago in The Globe’s “Othello”):

  • There are 80 different spellings of Shakespeare’s name.
  • William Shakespeare is the most translated author ever.
  • There were an estimated 750 First Folios printed; 233 still exist. The Folger owns a third of them. The 900-page book cost £1 in 1623, the equivalent of $250 today. One of the world’s most valuable printed books, a First Folio sold for $6.2 million at Christie’s in 2001.
  • The Folio format was expensive, bought only by the wealthy; it was usually reserved for Bibles. The books were made from a full-sized sheet folded only once, into 2 pages – as opposed to a Quarto, which was folded four times into 8 pages. William Shakespeare was the first English playwright to have his plays collected in a Folio.
  • The Old Globe, the 6th largest regional theater in the U.S., California’s oldest not-for-profit theater, is one of the world’s great Shakespeare theaters. And by all accounts, San Diego is a great American Shakespeare city.
  • In the 1920s, H.C. Folger, president of Standard Oil (!) and a compulsive collector, bought his first First Folio for £8600 (~$12,500); it had sold for £712 ($1030) earlier that year.
  • The exact text of every Shakespeare Folio id different, due to printer errors and deliberate changes, as well as different actors’ recollections of the text. That’s why Folger began collecting them.

If you compare the words of the famous soliloquy “To be or not to be” on the Folio page with the version that appears on the Folger panel next to it (as my husband, John, assiduously did), you’ll see a number of word changes – some of which dramatically change the meaning. For example:

  • “the poor man’s contumely” (Folio, meaning insulting language or treatment) vs. “the proud man’s contumely” (Folger)
  • “enterprises of great pith” (Folio) vs. “enterprises of great pitch” (Folger)
  • “pangs of disprised love” (Folio) vs. “pangs of despised love” (Folger)

and, from earlier in that scene, “mobled queen” (the most common reading. meaning wrapped or hooded) vs. “inobled queen” (Folio, presumably “ennobled” or exalted)See? Shakespeare is endlessly fascinating!And his writings aren’t bad either! In addition to the approximately 2000 words Shakespeare is said to have added to the English language (I own a marvelous book of them, “Coined by Shakespeare,” by Stanley Malless, Jeffrey McQuain and R. O. Blechman), these phrases, many of which seem pretty modern, were first used by William Shakespeare:

bold-faced, into thin air, spotless reputation, hold a candle to, foregone conclusion, out of the jaws of death, be-all and end-all, come full circle, eating me out of house and home.

You, too, will learn all this – and much more – at this exhibition. Don’t miss the exciting opportunity to get up close to the original words (more or less – see above) of Hamlet.

It was literally a breath-taking experience for me.


First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare” will be on view through July 7, in the Art Gallery on the 9th floor of the Central Library, 330 Park Blvd.

© 2016 Pat Launer, San Diego Theater Reviews