KU scholars mark 400 years of Shakespeare's first folio with new exhibition

The idea of forgetting classic Shakespeare plays like “Macbeth” or “Julius Caesar” is nearly unthinkable. But if not for the foresight of two actors and friends of William Shakespeare to publish a book 400 years ago, those plays might have been lost forever. A University of Kansas professor is teaming with KU Libraries to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s first folio, the historical legacy of the publication and the importance of libraries in preserving arts and scholarship.

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In 1623, seven years after his death, Shakespeare’s friends, actors John Heminge and Henry Condell, brought together a collection of 36 of his plays that were the first published collection of the Bard’s works. Half of those works were previously unpublished. The folio, titled “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies” turns 400 this year.

An exhibition at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library titled “To the Great Variety of Readers: Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio” will open Sept. 21 and remain on view to students, scholars and the public throughout the fall. David Bergeron, professor emeritus of English, curated the exhibition with assistance from Beth Whitaker, Spencer Library director and associate dean of KU Libraries. Bergeron and Geraldo Sousa, professor of English — both preeminent Shakespeare scholars — recently made a donation to KU Libraries to establish the Bergeron-Sousa Exhibit Fund, which pairs KU faculty and Spencer curators for annual exhibits. The first exhibition supported by the new fund will mark the anniversary of the first folio’s publication and also showcase the Spencer Research Library and the vital role both play in scholarship.

“I thought, ‘Why should we be left out of this momentous anniversary?’ This can be a time to call attention to the Spencer Research Library and its importance to the university. At the same time, we can do our part to celebrate a significant anniversary,” Bergeron said. “Through the exhibit we can tell the story of the folio and how it helped preserve the work of Shakespeare as we know it today.”

The exhibition takes its title from the first folio, which was addressed “to the great variety of readers.” It will include a fragment of a first folio, facsimile of the First Folio and the library’s Second Folio of 1632, all from the Spencer’s collections. It will also document the legacy of the folio and how it preserved Shakespeare’s work for future generations.

“It hadn’t really been done before,” Sousa said of the publication of the first folio. “Plays were not considered to be literature at the time like we consider them to be today. It helped preserve many plays that hadn’t been published. The notion was beginning to be accepted that plays could be serious literature. and the folio helped secure that idea.”

The exhibition's curators also noted that without it, plays now regarded as timeless classics may have been forgotten, as manuscripts of the originals are no longer known to exist. Only about 235 copies of the first folio are known to exist in the world, the vast majority in libraries and museums.

Bergeron and Sousa also noted how the role of technology of the time and how the first folio came to be. The term folio simply refers to folded paper, and the exhibition will highlight how the work was an evolution from early printed works like the Gutenberg Bible, but was still labor intensive, as all type was set by hand, a major undertaking considering the hundreds of thousands of words contained in the 36 Shakespeare plays. They can also comment on how the technology of the time did not allow for standardized copies, as mistakes might appear in one copy, then be fixed by hand in another. Efforts to reduce such occurrences were influential on the standardization of spelling as we now know it, Bergeron said.

Without the folio, the state of English literature would be vastly different, according to Bergeron and Sousa, who also noted that without libraries, historical works such as the folio might no longer be known as well. They have both taught countless Shakespeare courses over their careers and often took their KU students to Spencer Research Library as part of their classes. “To the Great Variety of Readers” will be a chance to show the wealth of materials at Spencer to scholars from around the world, students and the public and to mark four centuries of a landmark piece of publishing.

“It really is a gem,” Sousa said of the library. “Spencer has an outstanding collection of materials from that era, and we hope to show how the folio was a significant revolution in publishing, much like what has happened in our time with digital publishing.”

Image: Geraldo Sousa, left, and David Bergeron in KU's Spencer Research Library. The two Shakespeare scholars recently made a gift to KU to establish an annual exhibition, and the first marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's first folio, which collected many of his plays in print for the first time.