Tuesday, April 5, 2016

400 Years Ago...

Shakespeare died.

On April 23rd, 1616, to be exact (so get ready, that momentous day is just a few weeks away).

If you were unaware that this year marked such an auspicious anniversary (or un-auspicious, as we are celebrating a death here), then you must not be running in my (grad literature student taking a Shakespeare course) circles. Because anyone who has anything remotely to do with Shakespeare is celebrating it big time this year. I mean, seriously, there are a million tribute productions and activities (like RBG presiding at a mock Merchant of Venice trial... ?) and all sorts of stuff planned all year long.

But, cool productions of Shakespeare plays aside, one of my personal favorite things happening this year is the 50 State tour of the First Folio by the Folger library. What is the First Folio, do you ask? Well, you've asked the right person.

Back in the day, there was this new and exciting invention called the printing press, and plays were some of the hottest new literature to be put into print. Usually single plays were printed in what were called Quartos (fairly normal book size), and this is how most of Shakespeare's plays were printed while he was alive. But a few years after he died, his friends collected a bunch of his plays and published them all together in a big fancy book called a Folio (think nice big coffee table kind of book, only 900 pages long). This was the First Folio, and it's because of this book that we have many of Shakespeare's plays that otherwise would've been lost.

About 750 copies were printed, only a little over 200 are still around today, and the Folger library, right here in America, has 82 of those copies. And guess what? For this big ole 400 year death anniversary, they're being super generous and sending some of those copies on tour. To every one of the 50 states (plus D.C. and Peurto Rico). So cool!

Texas had it's turn these past few weeks, and luckily for me, the location was Texas A&M, which is only 1.5 hours away (Texas is a big state, so honestly, 1.5 hours away is nothing). I've been trying to get up there to see it since February, but life happens, and I suddenly realized that this last weekend was it, and we had to go or I would miss out forever! (Or until the next time I'm in D.C.). So anyway, we made a little day trip out of it, saw the beautiful wild-flowers in Texas Hill Country, ate some delicious barbecue, and then spent a few moments honoring one of the most important books in the English language.

Shakespeare First Folio Folger Texas A&M
Sorry for the poor photo quality, but I'm no professional here, and dimly lit gallery rooms with no flash allowed means not great photo quality from me. But there it is! In the flesh! I really wish I could've flipped through the pages, but I guess they just don't let average Joes do that.

Shakespeare First Folio Folger Hamlet
They had it open to this speech from Hamlet, which I get is a very iconic speech and all, but what I really would've liked to see is the frontispieces (decorative title pages). Oh well.

Shakespeare First Folio Folger Texas A&M 400
Am I such a nerd? Yeah, I guess I am. I can't help it. I really do like Shakespeare that much.

Anyway, should you care to participate by viewing this pretty cool piece of history, check the schedule to see when the tour is coming to your state. I highly recommend you check it out if you live close enough to your state's location.

Also, a little side note I can't help throwing in here, because it is consuming so much of my life right now. Another momentous 400 year literary anniversary is that of the printing of Ben Jonson's 1616 Folio. Never heard of Ben Jonson? Yeah, it's okay. He was a contemporary playwright to Shakespeare, and although he wasn't nearly as good (sorry, Ben), he was still pretty popular in his day. In 1616 (so, the year Shakespeare died), he printed a big fancy Folio collection of his own plays and poetry, and he was pretty much the first playwright to ever do something like that. It was his Folio that gave Shakespeare's buddies the idea to collect Shakespeare's plays posthumously and print them in a Folio too, so in a way, we have Jonson's 1616 Folio to thank for the preservation of Shakespeare's works. How do I know all this? Well, my Master's Essay is on Jonson's 1616 Folio, and why it was the critical moment for theatrical literature, so yeah, I'm kind of up to my eyeballs in this stuff right now. Sorry if that was all more than you ever cared to know about early drama print history, but I find it kind of fascinating. I'll refrain from getting too academic here though. All I'm saying is that if you participate in any of the Shakespeare festivities this year (including going to see the Folio), don't forget to throw out a little thought for Jonson too. 400 years ago was just a big year for English drama.


  1. You deserve every bit of your master's degree in English--that's all I'm saying. ;-)

    No, actually, this really is cool. It looks like it will be in SLC in October, which gives me plenty of time to brush up on some Shakespeare before it's here!

    1. Oops, did I let my inner-academic show through too much? I try to keep her hidden...

  2. This is so cool! I'm glad to see some public libraries on the list for that tour. :)

    1. I know! I think they're trying to make it as accessible as possible, thus the libraries. It's a cool thing they're doing.