The Holy Grail

July 11, 2012 at 11:00 am (Asides) (, , , )

Sometimes I have to remind myself that Shakespeare produced plays, not literature. He presented live drama on stage, and these productions were ephemeral. They were meant to be watched and heard, not read. His works (and his beautiful words!) come down to us indirectly… there are no manuscripts in his handwriting. We can’t be sure they’re his precise words.

We have Shakespeare’s works today because versions of the dialog from his plays were printed (not by him). Some appeared simultaneously with the production of the plays on stage — in an informal, small pamphlet-type format called a quarto. These were printed cheaply, and the words came from various sources… some more reliable than others. There are “bad” quartos for some plays.

Today’s scholars and directors wrestle with various versions of the words of the plays because they vary in the different quarto texts. It is difficult to figure out which are truest to Shakespeare’s own words. For example,  Michael E. Mooney in the Colby Quarterly describes the issues with defining a “correct” text for a famous passage from Romeo and Juliet (Q1 and Q2 are different quarto versions):

Bad quartos, rightly judged poor texts, may in fact be superior scripts. In their attempts to provide us with the best version of the play, editors provide us with the fullest text, not necessarily the most accurate script. They have not totally subscribed to Q2, however, and that has allowed four centuries of readers and viewers to hold Juliet’s point in their minds:

Whats Mountague? It is nor hand nor foote,
Nor arme nor face, nor any other part.
Whats in a name? That which we call a Rofe,
By any other name would fmell as fweet, (Ql)

rather than Q2’s poorly printed, prosaic version:

Whats Mountague? it is nor hand nor foote,
Nor arme nor face, 0 be some other name
Belonging to a man.
Whats in a name that which we call a rofe,
By any other word would fmell as fweete.

The truth of the matter is more complex, however, since the version of these lines that we read and hold in our minds belongs neither to Q1 nor to Q2, but is the
product of the eighteenth-century editor, Edmond Malone, one of the earliest editors to conflate different texts in rewriting a passage we now believe to be Shakespeare’s:

What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. 0 be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

So, there are problems with quartos, but at least it’s something to work with. Nearly half of Shakespeare’s plays were not published in quarto form. Nearly half of Shakespeare’s plays would be lost if not for a compendium printed several years after his death.

A First Folio. My Close Encounter With The Holy Grail.

A couple of actors decided to print a very expensive, large-format “folio” edition including text for all of Shakespeare’s plays. Think about this. Their efforts saved half of Shakespeare’s work from oblivion. And for those that had previously appeared in quarto form, the First Folio provides a comparison text that clarifies or corrects mistakes in the cheaper quarto versions. The story is even more complicated because the First Folio was such a huge printing job that it was farmed out to a number of different printers, and individual copies of First Folios can be identified due to typesetting variations!

From the Folger Shakespeare Library website:

Printed in the large “folio” size, the First Folio is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. It was put together after his death in 1616 by two fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, and was published in 1623. The First Folio is the only source for eighteen of the plays, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and As You Like It, all of which would otherwise have been lost.

In other words, the First Folio is the Shakespearean Holy Grail. Think how much poorer we would be if it had not been published.

And I have seen the Holy Grail. Up close!

Eastern Shadbush

I am studying for a masters degree in Library Science and I live in a place that abounds in special libraries… that is, libraries that are not your neighborhood public library branch or affiliated with a school or college. Washington DC is the land of special, and some very special, libraries. And I am visiting as many of them as I can. There are SUCH cool things.

I could spend hours and hours looking at the beautiful watercolor herbals and botanical paintings in the special collections at the National Agricultural Library. I posted last spring about the Shakespeare exhibit at the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine. I went back for a tour of their rare books and I sat in the incunabula room surrounded by the really old books. There I saw some of the very earliest printed books. And I also came face to face with a first edition of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species.

How cool is that?

So, you can imagine I was a little excited to see the student chapter of the American Library Association offer a special library student tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Yes, please.

Folger Shakespeare Library with Capitol Building. Photo by Julie Ainsworth.

Somehow I’ve lived most of my adult life in the DC area without ever visiting the Folger. Mistake on my part. The Folger Shakespeare Library was built by Henry Folger, a Standard Oil executive, and his wife. They loved Shakespeare and began collecting for the purpose of creating a Shakespeare library for America. They bought the land for it purposely… it is literally across the street from the Capitol dome, around the corner from the Supreme Court, and next door to the Library of Congress. It is one of the many beautiful white buildings of official Washington.

Folger Shakespeare Library, Gail Kern Paster Reading Room with First Folios in the foreground! Photo by Julie Ainsworth.

However, the Folger Shakespeare Library is administered by Henry Folger’s alma mater, Amherst College. Unlike many of DC’s white buildings, it is definitely private property… not a government agency. The interior spaces are beautiful, ornately carved wood and stonework and beautiful stained glass windows. Wow. Did I mention that, according to their website, the Folger is the home of the world’s largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials, as well as major collections of other rare Renaissance books, manuscripts, and works of art.

Back to the First Folio. “The Folger holds 82 copies of the First Folio, about a third of those still in existence, and by far the largest collection in the world.” We were told during our tour that a First Folio recently sold for about $6 million. And did you catch that the Folger owns 82 copies of it? Yes, think about that for a moment.

Wow. The Holy Grail.

So, I was hoping to see one. Just one of the 82 copies in the collection. That didn’t seem too much to ask. I’ll get to that in a minute.

My friend and I arrived early for our tour and we had a chance to watch the actors rehearsing for The Taming of the Shrew in the Folger’s Elizabethan-style theater. I could sit there all day watching the director help the actors work on dialog — on getting everything just right, really thinking about the meaning of each word and figuring out how to get the meaning across to the audience through their tone and expression. So cool to watch this process which I also enjoyed in the Playing Shakespeare TV series.

Folger Shakespeare Library Great Hall. Photo by Julie Ainsworth.

We visited the exhibit about female writers in the English Renaissance in the beautiful and enormous Great Hall.

There, I spotted The Holy Grail. I was excited to see a First Folio on exhibit in the Great Hall. This area is free and open to the public, so if you want to see a First Folio, stop by the Folger during visiting hours. The First Folio in the Great Hall is in a glass case, not unlike the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian Natural History museum a few blocks away. There is a touch screen below this First Folio. You can page through and zoom in on a digital version of it, but that lovely book is safely behind thick glass. I thought this was as close as I would come to a First Folio. I was mistaken.

Our special tour as library students took us deep underground to The Vault. We didn’t go into The Vault. But we saw it. Now when you go see that First Folio in the Great Hall behind that plate glass… you’ll feel all excited, but you will not feel like I felt underground at The Vault. And they will not take regular tourist groups down there. Sorry.

So, then they took us into a viewing room and There, I Saw The Holy Grail.

A First Folio (oh and a Quarto version of Romeo and Juliet and a bunch of other things) sitting on a table for us to inspect closely. I didn’t touch it, but the Folger librarian paged through it with me and let me look at anything I wanted. Some photos of my close encounter are below. I would have looked at the whole thing page by page, but that would have been annoying, eh?

I was amazed, really amazed at the beautiful condition it’s in. The pages are crisp and clean, the print is clear and not faded at all. I really felt like I was looking at treasure. A cultural treasure right before my eyes. It was an amazing experience!

Because we were there on a library student tour, we were also interested in how rare books are handled. Gloves are no longer used, as they cause more problems than they solve (it’s easier to tear a page wearing gloves than with your bare fingers). You’ll notice little strands of cord in some of the photos. These are leaded and heavier than they look. They keep the pages open without creasing. There were little velvet bean bags on some books. The books are treated carefully and lovingly.

I’m glad I can share this experience with you. My visit to the Folger was back in April, so it has taken me a while to put together my thoughts and photos. I hope you enjoy! It was quite an experience for me!

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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  1. livritome said,

    Great post! I don’t think I knew most of this and now also am in awe of the “holy grail”. Think if it had been lost….amazing!

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Yeah, I didn’t know a whole lot about the first folio either, which is why it took me a few months to put the post together! I wanted to explain it clearly because I figured people might not know about it.

      Dee, the Folger is so cool! Have you ever been there? I feel embarrassed that I never went there before, but I have to admit it was esp cool going there on a library student tour! 🙂

  2. His wit can no more lie hid, then it could be lost | Or What You Will said,

    […] and other Shakespeareana and the building of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington… I blogged about my close encounter with a First Folio there a few years ago. I was glad to read more about Folger and his hobby. It’s quite a […]

  3. He was not of an age, but for all time | Or What You Will said,

    […] made out of the mulberry wood from a Stratfordian tree, I even saw some little Shakepeare-y ducks when I visited a few years ago. They were insatiable accumulators of Bardian stuff. And then Elizabethan/Jacobean stuff. They […]

  4. The One That Got Away… Again! | Or What You Will said,

    […] known copies in the world, all sitting there on shelves in Washington DC. It leaves me to wonder which First Folio I had a close encounter with a few years ago. Was it Folger First Folio No. 1 — the precious Vincent Folio? The One That Did NOT Get Away? […]

  5. livritome said,

    Reading through all this again after seeing Book of Will with you yesterday. So cool and thank you for sharing your knowledge of these treasures!

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