What does it mean for a writer to live on in the pages of a book?
New Orleanians will have a chance to find out when one of the rarest books in the world — Shakespeare’s first folio — comes for a visit, is greeted by a jazz funeral, and stays for a monthlong exhibit.
“First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare” opens at the Newcomb Art Museum on Monday, with a celebratory reception and jazz funeral. It will be on display through May 31. Copies of the folio are traveling to all 50 states as part of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “The Wonder of Will: A Celebration of 400 Years of Shakespeare.”
In the book world, this is about as good as it gets.
“The first folio of Shakespeare’s plays is one of the most important books ever printed — a real, physical link with one of the greatest authors who ever wrote, published seven years after his death,” said Mike Kuczynski, medieval and Renaissance literature scholar and chair of the Tulane University English department.
Kuczynski spearheaded the year-and-a-half-long competitive effort to win the exhibition for Tulane, New Orleans and Louisiana. This is part of an international initiative marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. In April, Kuczynski and a New Orleans delegation, including the Wendell Brunious Band, traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon, England, to participate in a jazz funeral, the first part of this cultural exchange.
The first folio is one of the rarest of rare books. Experts believe 750 were printed in 1623 after being assembled by Shakespeare’s colleagues in the King’s Men, John Heminge and Henry Condell.
Only 233 survive, and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington holds 88. Just last month, an additional folio was discovered in the library of a Scottish castle.
The first folio includes 36 plays, divided into comedies, tragedies and histories, and it is the only source for 18 of them, including some of his most famous and beloved — and previously unpublished works — Macbeth, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and As You Like It, among them.
A fascinating new book by Hertford College, Oxford, scholar Emma Smith, “Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book” (Oxford University Press, June), traces the history of this amazing book through its many purchasers, who used it to read for their own pleasure or as a source for theatrical productions.
Some of the first folios have annotations by their owners, doodles or fingerprints or wineglass stains, human nature being what it is.
Smith also describes the collecting passions of Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930), whose personal obsession with Shakespeare survives in the world-renowned Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. (Folger and his wife are actually buried in the library that bears their names, an elegant end for a bibliophile.)
“I think the first folio is an immensely charismatic book — it’s familiar to us — that portrait of Shakespeare with bald head and ruffles, those double columns of type — but every copy has its own unique history,” Smith said.
“My work has been trying to follow these histories and to reveal how copies of the book show how people long ago read, annotated, and spilt their wine on their copy of Shakespeare. It’s always exciting to handle one — no two copies are identical, and the thrill of finding one recently in the Isle of Bute really captured people’s imaginations. The first folio is one of the cornerstones of English literature, and because it was such a prize to American collectors early in the 20th century, it is a truly American book, too.”
The copy of the first folio on view at the Newcomb Art Museum will be open to one of the best-known passages in Shakespeare, one that was at the centerpiece of the Tulane proposal.
“Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech is one of the best loved poems in the English language — an emotional account of a soul’s struggle with despair. We all have moments of such struggle in our lives, when we are challenged to avoid or to embrace our destinies,” Kuczynski said. “Katrina was New Orleans’ ‘To be or not to be’ moment, the city’s opportunity to embrace its future rather than being defeated by its present ‘sea of troubles,’ as Hamlet calls them in the speech … This kind of exhibition is not only educational — it’s inspirational.”
The first folio exhibit gives rise to a full month of citywide Shakespeare-related activity. In addition to the opening jazz funeral and ongoing exhibit, there will be family workshops at area libraries taught by Tulane faculty, a “Sonnets in the Gallery” poetry reading with state poet laureate Peter Cooley at 1 p.m., May 16, at the Newcomb Art Museum and lectures at various intervals throughout the month.
Other significant items will be on display along with the first folio, including a rare 1611 Third Quarto of Hamlet, on loan from book collector Stuart Rose, a New Orleans native whose book collection is legendary.
In addition, there will be an archival circuit of events at Tulane’s libraries — the history of book publication in Shakespearean times at Howard-Tilton’s Special Collections, Shakespeare and race at Amistad Research Center, and Shakespeare and gender at the Newcomb Archives and Vorhoff Library special collections. Check out firstfolio.tulane.edu for the complete schedule of events.
The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Williams Research Center is adding local flair to the celebration with an exhibit, “Merry As the Day Is Long: Shakespeare’s Hand in New Orleans,” which looks at 19th century theatrical productions, Mardi Gras float designs inspired by the Bard, and materials from the Shakespeare Club.
All this celebration for one book. But really, it is so much more, as Kuczynski said. “It’s also a memorial to Shakespeare’s life — as another great English poet, John Milton, wrote, a better memorial to Shakespeare than a pyramid would be! To be in the presence of this book, for me, is to feel the presence of Shakespeare — the spiritual power of his life and influence.”
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO-FM and is the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.