Much ado about the First Folio

By Laura Douglas-Brown | Nov. 8, 2016

A woman ponders Shakespeare's First Folio

"First Folio: The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare" is on display through Dec. 11 at the Carlos Museum.

Museum visitors discuss the first folio with the folio itself in the foreground.

The First Folio, published in 1623, is the centerpiece of the exhibit and is open to the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from "Hamlet."

A man takes a group photo of four visitors with the First Folio

Emory is the only Georgia site for the First Folio exhibit, which is touring the nation in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

A man studies an exhibit containing the second, third and fourth folios.

Emory's exhibit also includes Shakepeare's Second, Third and Fourth Folios.

Museum visitors read murals about the First Folio.

Throughout the exhibit space, vibrant panels explore Shakespeare's relevance to contemporary language, art and more.

Emory President Claire E. Sterk introduces speakers at the opening event.

At a Nov. 4 preview event, Emory President Claire E. Sterk welcomed visitors to the First Folio exhibit, along with Rosemary Magee, director of the Rose Library, and English professor Sheila Cavanagh, director of the World Shakespeare Project.

At the opening event, a duo of actors perform a skit about the significance of Shakespeare's First Folio.

The gala preview event also included musical performances based on Shakespeare's works.

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A celebratory crowd gathered at the Carlos Museum on Friday evening, Nov. 4, for a first look at the First Folio exhibit, which opened to the public Saturday and remains on display through Dec. 11.

"What's past is prologue" reads the quote from William Shakespeare's play "The Tempest" emblazoned on the wall of the gallery in Emory's Michael C. Carlos Museum where the First Folio is now on view. It's a fitting epigraph for an exhibit focused on an almost 400-year-old book that remains remarkably relevant today.

After more than a year of planning, "First Folio: The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare" opened to the public Saturday, drawing a steady flow of visitors throughout the weekend.

At a special event the night before, the mood was both celebratory and reverent in the museum's Works on Paper gallery, where attendees got a first look at the exhibit, which continues through Dec. 11.

"Friends, Georgians and colleagues, lend me your ears. We come to praise Shakespeare and to honor him," Rosemary Magee, director of Emory's Rose Library, said as she welcomed guests to the event with remarks based on the famed speech in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

"The good that we do lives after us, oft embedded in our books," Magee said. "So be it with Shakespeare."

Published in 1623, just seven years after Shakespeare's death, the First Folio is the first collected edition of the acclaimed author’s plays and is among the most famous books in the world.

Emory is the only Georgia site chosen to display the literary treasure as part of a national traveling exhibit from the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is coordinating displays in all 50 states to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death.

Emory is also one of only a few sites to concurrently display the Second (1632), Third (1663) and Fourth Folios (1685), made possible by a loan of the Second and Third folios from Rose Library benefactor Stuart A. Rose.

"Joining the Second, Third and Fourth Folios here, we have a campus wide exploration and celebration of the First," Magee reminded attendees. "Inviting all from across Emory, the city and state, this is indeed much ado about something very special."

"Once in a lifetime" moment

 Having the opportunity to view the First Folio is a "once in a lifetime moment" that Emory is sharing across the university and into the broader community, President Claire E. Sterk told the opening reception.

"Emory is indeed very proud to be chosen as the only site in Georgia to host the First Folio, and we have engaged the entire campus in this celebration," Sterk said. "Students, faculty, staff and alumni from across the campus and disciplines will host many events associated with the exhibition."

In the center of the Works on Paper gallery, the First Folio stands alone in a glass case, open to the iconic "To be or not to be" soliloquy from "Hamlet."

On the back wall, beneath the quote from "The Tempest," another case holds the copies of the Second, Third and Fourth Folios, each opened to a different page.

But while the rare, centuries-old books are the focus, the exhibit was clearly designed for modern appeal. Panels lining the walls provide background on the First Folio and highlight Shakespeare's relevance to contemporary times.

"Shakespeare's words are your words," proclaims the first, giving examples of phrases from the Bard's plays that remain in modern usage, like "Beware the ides of March," "We band of brothers" and "Brevity is the soul of wit."

Other panels explore the history of the First Folio and the influence of Shakespeare on everything from contemporary literature to computer games and hip-hop music. All feature the familiar faces of famous actors playing Shakespearean roles, including Meryl Streep in "The Taming of the Shrew," Laurence Fishburne in "Othello," John Leguizamo in "Romeo and Juliet" and James Earl Jones in "Much Ado About Nothing."

"Shakespeare is still having an impact on our culture 400 years later and that is quite remarkable," Sterk said at the reception. "We live in such a fast-moving world that we sometimes forget how special that is."

Wide-ranging celebration

Emory English professor Sheila Cavanagh, director of the World Shakespeare Project, noted in her remarks that creating the First Folio was risky at the time, as plays were not considered to be of as much literary value as poetry. 

"To give you some idea about the First Folio and why it matters: If it weren’t for the First Folio, we would not have 18 of Shakespeare's plays, and these include plays like 'Julius Caesar,' 'Twelfth Night,' 'Macbeth' and many more," she explained.

Cavanagh also echoed Sterk's invitation for the entire community to join in Emory's celebration of the First Folio.

Events while the Folio is on campus include the following:

  • Will of the People: Shakespeare’s Folios and Their Meaning in Our World," Shakespeare at Emory's official opening event, is set for Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m. in Emerson Concert Hall in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. Jazz musician Dwight Andrews presents Duke Ellington's "Such Sweet Thunder" as internationally recognized scholars Nicholas Grene, Tom Magill and Ayanna Thompson explore Shakespeare's place in the African American arts tradition and in modern Ireland.
  • Theater Emory presents "Romeo and Juliet" through Nov. 13.
  • A series of staged readings examines interpretations of the Bard's work. Remaining events include "Fortunes of the Moor," a new vision of Shakespeare's "Othello," on Nov. 9; and "The Book of Will," Emory alumna Lauren Gunderson's play about the co-editors of the First Folio, on Nov. 13.
  • The Carlos Museum continues "The Bard in Bollywood," screening Indian filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj's Shakespeare trilogy with introductions by Deepika Bahri of Emory’s English Department. Remaining shows include "Omkara" on Nov. 8 and "Haider" on Nov. 15.
  • On Nov. 11, Margaret Edson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Wit" presents “The Soul of ‘Wit’: An Evening For Educators” — an exploration of the free-wheeling, slapdash world of Elizabethan theater.
  • The Carlos Museum hosts family-friendly events including "All the World's a Stage," a storytelling event on Nov. 12, and a bookmaking event on Nov. 20 where children will experiment with bookmaking techniques.
  • On Nov. 14, Magee hosts "Shakespeare's Words and Works," a Creativity Conversation with two Emory alumni, playwright Gunderson and antiquarian bookseller Daniel Wechsler, on their journeys into the world of Shakespeare.
  • The Shakespeare and Accessibility Symposium, set for Nov. 16, features a number of American and international actors, directors, singers and professors who will discuss ways that casts, audiences and designers have become more diverse in the world of Shakespeare. 
  • On Dec. 5, prior to the closing celebration, Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, discusses "The Wonder of Will," the legacy of Shakespeare and the Folger Library’s extensive collection of the Bard in print.
  • Also on Dec. 5, the official closing celebration, "The Bard and Poetry," features former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing, and award-winning poets and Emory professors Kevin Young and Jericho Brown.