Emory museum has treat for Shakespeare fans: rare First Folio of plays

To see or not to see …

With apologies to “Hamlet,” that is the question that’s long haunted many Shakespeare aficionados. From scholars and rare book lovers to actors who’ve done it all from “All’s Well That Ends Well” to “The Winter’s Tale,” they’ve likely despaired of ever getting to lay eyes on an elusive First Folio of Shakespeare.

But now, to quote a certain 16th-century sonnet writer, “Joy delights in joy!”

On Saturday, one of the exceedingly rare First Folios goes on display at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University. The centerpiece of a major exhibition that runs through Dec. 11, the folio was the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Only 235 of these books are known to exist today, with the largest number — 82 in all — owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

In an extraordinary development timed to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616, the Folger has sent 18 of its precious folios on a nationwide tour this year.

“First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare” stops at only one place in each of the 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and the nation’s capital. Being chosen as Georgia’s site represents a major coup for Emory, which has spent much of the past year organizing Bard-related events and activities touching on everything from film and theater to postcards and plants.

And, in what’s the rare book world equivalent of having every baseball Hall of Famer’s mint condition rookie card shown off in one place, the Carlos exhibition will also display the Second, Third and Fourth Folios of Shakespeare — these later editions were published between 1632 and 1685.

“There’s the whole buzz factor, but that wasn’t what really motivated us to do this,” said Rosemary Magee, director of Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, which orchestrated the effort to bring the tour here and which owns the Fourth Folio featured in the exhibit. The Second and Third Folios are on loan from the private collection of Stuart Rose, the Dayton, Ohio-based Emory alum who has made significant literary and financial contributions to the library.

“This connects directly to our mission as a university and helps raise awareness about the range of incredible resources that exist here,” Magee said.

The First Folio arrived at the Carlos Museum on Tuesday, escorted by a courier in a special climate-controlled FedEx truck and wrapped in a bit of mystery. (Read more about what went into hosting the First Folio.) Because of the way they were produced, no two First Folios are exactly alike, said Emory English professor Sheila Cavanagh, director of the World Shakespeare Project. Only after the nationwide tour has concluded and all of the First Folios are safely tucked away back in the Folger vault will Emory and all the other hosts learn which one they had.

Security and uniformity is one reason all the folios are opened to the same part of “Hamlet” at every exhibition site.


“‘To be or not to be,’” Cavanagh said with a smile about the soliloquy that, in the folio at the Carlos, starts seven lines from the bottom of the left-hand column on the opened page to the right. “That’s obviously the most famous line in Shakespeare.”

It’s also on pretty much every high school reading list in America. Raising the obvious question, is this exhibition really that big a deal?

Please. Did King Lear have parenting issues?

As a “non-circulating” library, the Folger’s decision to send the First Folios out on tour is largely unprecedented. Meanwhile, had some of Shakespeare’s fellow actors not decided seven years after his death to compile all of his plays — 18 of them previously unpublished — into one text, masterpieces like “Macbeth,” “Julius Caesar” and “The Tempest” might have been lost forever. Customers took the text to their favorite bookbinders to be put together, accounting for differences of appearance, size and even page numbering from book to book.

The record sales price for a First Folio is $6.1 million, but arguably its value is priceless. With its direct connection to Shakespeare’s contemporaries (the portrait on the title page is “generally considered an authentic image because it was approved by those who knew him,” the Folger Library says), the First Folio now seems the closest we’ll ever come to the genius playwright himself.

And when better than the digital age for a 393-year-old printed book — with what looks like it could be an ancient tea stain discoloring a few words of “Hamlet” — to show up on campus?

“We teach our students to always be mindful of the importance of primary evidence along with secondary research,” Magee said. “There’s something special and unique about each of these folios … being able to see that and look for it is quite meaningful and significant compared to reading something on the web.”


“First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare”

Saturday-Dec. 11. The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays; the museum is closed Mondays, on university holidays and on Nov. 24 and 25. Admission is free to the First Folio gallery only. Admission to all the Carlos Museum galleries: $8 adults, $6 students, seniors and children (ages 6-17). 571 S. Kilgo Circle, Atlanta. 404-727-4282, www.carlos.emory.edu.

For additional information about ongoing exhibitions and upcoming events that are part of “Shakespeare at Emory,” visit the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library website at rose.library.emory.edu.

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