Worldwide, there are just 233 known surviving copies of the First Folio — the first collection of William Shakespeare's plays, which two actors published in 1623, shortly after the author's death. Of these copies, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., owns 82. For this we may thank Big Oil and Gilded Age industrialist Henry Clay Folger's obsession with the book. Folger managed and then chaired the board of Standard Oil of New York.
Now one of Folger's copies is on display at the Middlebury College Museum of Art. The volume is on loan for the month as part of the Folger Library's 50-state traveling show, "First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare," in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death.
Having arrived in an armored vehicle, the book rests in the art museum in a temperature- and humidity-controlled glass case. It is opened to the page from Hamlet containing the playwright's best-known line: "To be, or not to be, that is the question." Full-time security guards, required by the Folger, keep watch.
"It's a very fragile, $5 million object," explained Middlebury College literature professor Timothy Billings, who was interviewed before its arrival. Billings and visiting literature professor James Berg spearheaded the effort to get the Folio there. Billings added that a facsimile printed in a similar size would be available for perusal. The Folger is also providing six large panels of historical information.
The First Folio is significant for more than its rarity. Eighteen of the 36 plays it contains had never been previously printed and might otherwise have been lost. Think of a world without Macbeth or The Tempest. Even the plays that had been published often contained mere estimates of the playwright's lines, said Billings. These took the form of quartos — cheap single-play editions published during Shakespeare's lifetime — that were illicitly issued by minor actors looking to make quick money. During a recent Vermont Humanities Council First Wednesdays talk, Billings cited a quarto that reads, "To be or not to be — aye, there's the point."
As Vermont's only hosting institution, Middlebury College is offering a slew of related events, coordinated by Rebekah Irwin, director of special collections and archives. According to Irwin, the college counts medieval illuminated prayer books among its rarest holdings, "but we don't have anything like [a First Folio]."
Partnering with the Humanities Council, the college has brought in James Shapiro, the Columbia University Shakespeare scholar who claimed to put the question of authorship to rest in his 2010 book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Shapiro will give a keynote lecture in the Mahaney Center for the Arts on Wednesday, February 3.
Irwin collaborated with Ilsley Public Library youth services librarian Tricia Allen on several events, including a retelling of Romeo and Juliet for babies, toddlers and their caretakers; and a stop-motion-animation Shakespeare camp for kids in third grade and up.
On Thursday, February 18, an early-evening First Folio Festival for all ages at the Mahaney Center will feature tours by Billings and Berg, as well as three performances. The Middlebury Actors Workshop will present a speedy survey of Shakespeare's most famous scenes; the Penny Lane Consort will perform period music on period instruments; and the college's Renaissance a cappella group, the Mountain Ayres, will provide a vocal soundtrack to the era.
And, of course, there will be theater. On February 20 and 21, Massachusetts-based actor-director Tina Packer will perform Women of Will, a work in which she enacts Shakespeare's female characters so as to demonstrate the progression of the playwright's understanding of women.
On Sunday, February 28, the Burlington-based Vermont Shakespeare Festival will present an excerpt from Will, an original play by Midd alum Jon Glascoe. The work is based on the strange performance history of the politically charged Richard II. Shakespeare's company performed it for supporters of the Earl of Essex the night before Essex attempted to depose Queen Elizabeth. The players — and Shakespeare himself — were questioned but got off; Essex was beheaded.