Nearly 400 years after his death, the work of William Shakespeare remains among the most dissected, debated and recognizable prose in the English language. Victoria alone hosts Shakespeare in the Park and Shakespeare by the Sea and now Shakespeare Onstage-Offstage. The words of the Bard are never far from the lips of this city’s actors.
But a number of his greatest plays – Macbeth, for one, The Tempest, for another – would have be lost forever if they hadn’t been collected and published in 1623 in what is now called the First Folio.
An original copy of the First Folio and the equally intriguing Second, Third and Fourth folios, are now on public display in the University of Victoria Legacy Art Gallery on Yates Street. Shakespeare’s “Big Books” are part of the Shakespeare Onstage-Offstage celebration.
Considered one of the most important printed books in the English language, the Folios are housed in individual climate controlled display cases on loan from the Royal B.C. Museum. The Legacy Art Gallery hired a structural engineer to make sure the exceptionally heavy cases didn’t fall through the floor.
Fittingly, the First Folio is opened to a page with an iconic image of Shakespeare himself, originally etched as a woodcut portrait by someone who probably knew him personally, said UVic English professor Erin Kelly, who with professor Janelle Jenstad, curated the exhibit.
Prior to the Folio, Shakespeare’s plays had been printed on pamphlets, or not at all. A few years after Shakespeare died, two actors from his theatre company brought together the material, and had it printed as a large format “folio” – an expensive endeavour and reserved for the most important texts, such as bibles.
“They started work in 1622 to create a folio collection with all the Shakespeare plays – it has 36, but 18 had never been printed previously,” Kelly said. “If this book hadn’t been printed, we wouldn’t have plays like Macbeth, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra.
“Hamlet’s soliloquy is only found in the Folio. To understand the plays and the playwright would have been really difficult without this.”
Around 230 to 240 First Folio books exist today, out of 750 printed in 1623, a good survival rate considering the Bodleian Library at Oxford, for one, ditched its copy after the Second Folio (i.e. the second edition) came out in 1632. “In the 17th century, the First Folio was just considered an old book,” Kelly remarked.
The Third Folio is the rarest after most prints were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Forty-three are known to exist.
Kelly, who has examined a First Folio edition herself, although not the one on display, said the books are a reminder that Shakespeare didn’t pen his enduring work in isolation, but was influenced by his actors and the community he worked in, and ultimately by editors and typesetters who printed (or misprinted) his work.
“Shakespeare was part of a community. We all do our best work when we collaborate with others. It’s comforting to know its the same is true with Shakespeare,” she said. “He is probably better because of the people around him.”
The actors and printers who created the First Folio took a big gamble in terms of recouping their costs. Kelly suspects the theatre company was exceptionally proud of those plays and its members had great affection for Shakespeare personally.
“A folio is a big important book. They were assuming Shakespeare was worth the investment.”
The First Folio at the Legacy Art Gallery is what is called “a sophisticated copy,” where some pages are reproductions or replacements of the original. “Of the First Folio, very few are compete and original and not mixed with other copies. Only a handful are original and intact. If you were 400 years old, you’d be lucky to have all your pieces,” Kelly said.
The First and Third Folios are on loan from the University of Toronto. The Second and Fourth Folios are on loan, perhaps surprisingly, from the Legislature Library in Victoria.
In the early 1900s Victoria resident Harrison Garside somehow amassed a collection of rare and valuable books which included the two Shakespeare Folios, a Thomas Hobbes first edition Leviathan from 1668, and several 16th century bibles.
“We’re not sure where he got his amazing and significant volume of books,” said co-curator professor Janelle Jenstad, “But he sold his collection to the provincial library.”
The Shakespeare Folios are on display at the Legacy Art Gallery until Oct. 23, 630 Yates St. Click here for more on the Shakespeare Onstage-Offstage festival plays and events underway.