Shakespeare’s First Folio Goes on Tour in the U.S.

Rare copies of the tome, containing 36 of the Bard’s plays, will visit every state for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death

First Folio Shakespeare
A First Folio kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, U.K. Andreas Praefcke, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. The Bard’s cultural legacy is still robust, as is people’s curiosity about every aspect of his life—whether it's what he ate, how his health fared, if he was scientifically literate or whether he smoked pot. The literary giant's quadricentennial deserves a celebration that lasts beyond the calendar date of his death and birth (both of which are a little uncertain) or even the month (April). So the Folger Shakespeare Library is making the celebration last the entire year by taking rare copies of the First Folio to all 50 states and Puerto Rico in the First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare tour.

In total, the Washington, D.C.-based library has 82 copies of the First Folio, the printed collection of Shakespeare’s plays, reports Susan Stamberg for NPR. That might sound like a lot, but the folio was originally printed seven years after his death. Actors John Heminges and Henry Condell assembled the collection in a single volume of 36 plays, including 18 that had never before appeared in print. “Without this book we probably wouldn't have ... Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Winter's Tale ..." says Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Experts estimate that 750 copies were printed in 1623. Now around 230 remain. 

These surviving copies are extremely valuable for researchers because subsequent printings introduced changes to the text. As Paul Collins points out in Smithsonianevery copy of the First Folio is unique because 17th-century printers introduced their own changes and corrections “on the fly," which makes it possible for scholars to identify what Shakespeare actually wrote. 

Each First Folio is housed in conditions designed to keep them preserved and safe. The Folger Library keeps its collection, which the largest in the world, in a rare manuscript vault deep underground, behind a fireproof door, a safe door and one monitored by a bell to “alert librarians that someone has entered,” Stamberg writes for NPR

Eighteen of these copies will be venturing out for the tour and six copies will be on the road at any given time this year, though they will be subject to careful measures of protection. Indeed, the 52-stop traveling exhibition has the logistics and hype that seems more fitting for “a rock star’s tour schedule than the display of an antiquarian book,” writes our Smart News colleague Erin Blakemore for Fine Books & Collections magazine. Silica gel and a special case will keep the folio on display at the proper humidity and the hosting venues will have intense security to guard the book. While on display, the book will be open to Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy.

The preparations and the pomp and circumstance are worth it, says Sloane Whidden, registrar and exhibitions manager at the Folger. “A personal encounter with the First Folio is very meaningful,” she tells Blakemore. By January 2017, all the traveling folios should be back in their vault, safe and sound. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.