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Shakespeare First Folio, 1623. Folger Shakespeare Library. Title page with Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare First Folio, 1623. Folger Shakespeare Library. Title page with Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare.

The New-York Historical Society Showcases Shakespeare's 'First Folio'

Picture of Patricia Contino
Updated: 16 June 2017
For an object to warrant its very own exhibition, it must have universal value. To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, The Folger Library is sponsoring a tour of the First Folio of The Bard’s plays, now on view at the New-York Historical Society on the Upper West Side. We find out more.

The triumvirate currently co-sponsoring First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare shares a common commitment to making education and the arts accessible to everyone. The New-York Historical Society, the 92nd Street Y, and the Public Theatre have come together to bring New York City Shakespeare’s First Folio, dating back to 1623.

Calling Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies a rare book is an understatement. Prior to the First Folio’s 1623 publication, plays were seldom published. Shakespeare’s manuscripts are lost; his handwriting survives on a few legal documents and one monologue from the multi-authored The Book of Sir Thomas More. John Heminge and Henry Condell, two colleagues from ‘The King’s Men’, decided to honor their friend with a Folio. Similar in use to a contemporary artist’s portfolio, a Folio was an official document printed on large paper to emphasize its importance. Heminge and Condell’s was the first devoted to a playwright. Thanks to them and their never-identified contributors, the plays survived. Subsequent Folios and scholarly editions followed, but The First Folio is the only one directly connected to Shakespeare.

The First Folio established two subsequent traditions. It was the first time an author’s portrait appeared on the cover. Since then, the author’s likeness is either on the front, inside or back of books and e-books. Also included were the names of the actors (women were banned from the stage until 1660) who first appeared in the plays. Whether working scripts such as those published by Samuel French or the handsome faux-textbook of Hamilton, members of the original cast, or in productions transferring to and/or from Europe and the United States or in major revivals/revisions, are listed.

Approximately 750 First Folios were printed, and collectors and scholars have long pursued them. None more so than Brooklynite Henry Folger (1857-1930). The President of Standard Oil and his wife Emily’s collection include 82 First Folios. Because New York City real estate was always expensive, they built The Folger Library in Washington, D.C. Worthy of a visit and taking the time for a guided tour, the library has research facilities, rotating exhibits, gardens, and a theater. They also publish their own Shakespeare editions.

Understandably, The First Folio is under glass and protected from direct sunlight. Considering all the political and theatricals that occurred since its binding, the book is in quite good physical condition. The page it is opened to is Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1 where ‘To be or not to be…’ appears. The Folger’s signage provides the right amount of information and has plenty of photos of famous actors. The Hamlet in the photograph across from the Folio isn’t John Gielgud, Laurence Oliver, or Richard Burton, but David Tennant. The Tenth Doctor is an acclaimed Prince of Denmark.

The New-York Historical Society includes a selection of pre-Broadway Shakespeare productions. Visitors will no doubt recall their own memories of seeing, reading, or performing his plays. First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare is on display at The New-York Historical Society through July 17th.

The New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY, USA, +1 212 873 3400