Tuesday, March 1, 2016


On March 11th a friend and I are traveling to Wayne State University in Detroit to participate in a Shakespeare conference in honor of Shakespeare's approaching 400th deathday, April 23rd (also, coincidentally, his birthday, as far as we know). The theme of the conference is "Shakespeare on Stage and on the Page," with the "Page" part a reference to the First Folio, the first edition of Shakespeare's dramatic works, published in 1623, of which only about 230 copies exist. First Folio volumes are now touring the country (not independently. They have handlers) and one of them has parked, or been parked, temporarily in Detroit. We're going to see it.

So what?, you say. So nothing. It's just something that's going to happen. At least, we plan for it to happen, though, as Shakespeare points out -- usually on gloomy
and tragic occasions -- you can't really confidently make plans when you don't know what lies ahead from one day to the next, or even from one hour to the next. Some of his characters remind us that usually there's something coming at you that is worse than anything you can imagine. In King Lear, Edgar says, "Who is't can say, 'I am at the worst'? . . . And worse I may be yet." And Henry IV says that if you could read the book of the future and see "what crosses [are] to ensue" you would "shut the book" and "sit [you] down to die."

But anyway. We're going to the Folio thing and we get to wear black dresses, not as mourning attire for Shakespeare, but because this conference includes not only scholarly panels but a black-tie cocktail party featuring a copy of the famous First Folio on display. I'm excited about this because, even though I'm from the Washington, D.C., area and have spent a lot of time doing research at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which owns most of the Folios and is the institution now sending them on tour, still, in all the times I visited the Folger, I never had the presence of mind to ask to see one. I've seen a lot of old books, but not the Folio, except one under glass on display in the visitors' gallery, which was not open where I would have opened it, namely, at the section of The Merry Wives of Windsor where Mistress Ford sums up her daughter's suitor succinctly by saying, "He is an idiot." It's one of my favorite Shakespeare lines. I'm hoping the Folio at Wayne State won't be under glass, though it may be after this post is published. If it's in the open, I'm planning to try to get a phone-pic of me looking like I'm about to accidentally spill my drink on it, with people around me looking horrified, but when we are there I will have to survey the situation (hopefully with my friend's assistance, but I know her, and I think she will be up for this) and see if that plan is feasible. If we can pull it off, I'll post the picture here. This is the kind of thing academics think is funny.

There are probably a lot of drink stains on the First Folio already.

Why do people care so much about the First Folio? Are we fetishists? Book-worshippers? After all, we aren't that reverential toward the Bible as a physical object. The people who most revere what the Bible has to say sling their good books around, write in their margins, underline verses, discard old translations for new ones . . . . So what's the deal with the First Folio?

Well, in fact, those who revere Shakespeare most do exactly the same things with their editions of his plays (barring "discard old translations for new ones," a no-no practiced only by slack students and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). We thumb our texts to pieces, we write in their margins, we underline passages, we fold pages til the corners break off. But the First Folio requires more careful treatment. Those guilty of Shakespeare idolatry (what George Bernard Shaw called "Bardolatry") may approach the First Folio with worship, but most scholars only want to preserve the text so that they, and future generations of people interested in Shakespeare, can analyze the variations among Folio copies (an aspect of early printing practices ensured that no two Folio copies are exactly alike), and between the Folios and the other authorized (or unauthorized) original editions of his plays. Scholar also like to see what was underlined or even written in the margins by the various owners. We're talking about marginalia which could date back to 1623, only seven years after Shakespeare's death. What is scribbled and underlined there can tell us all kinds of things about the early reception of Shakespeare's plays -- not just audience reception, but reader reception, now that most scholars concede that printing the plays as well as performing them was vital to early English playwrights' and players' success. What did Shakespeare's contemporaries in England think of Shakespeare? What did his contemporaries in other countries think? (A First Folio was recently discovered in a library in France.) Are there comments in the margins that reflect a reader's experience of an original staged performance?

Of course, as the science of reducing everything to an image on a computer screen progresses, as old texts are scanned and digitized with ever higher definition, scholars will have less and less need actually to examine the original pages of these almost-400-year-old books. But there just might be something untransferable (which Google tells me is not a word) in the experience of looking at an actual page that was read and touched by someone who might have passed William Shakespeare or Ben Jonson or Walter Raleigh or John Donne on the street, in a year when London was about the size of my present small city of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

I'll try not to spill my drink on the First Folio. And I'll let you know.

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