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Author shares First Folio history and Folger library founder's obsession

Andrea Mays, economist and author of “The Millionaire and the Bard,” visited Emory on Oct. 24 to discuss the history of Shakespeare's First Folio and Henry Folger’s passion for collecting it. Emory Photo/Video

What kind of a person would buy 82 copies of the same book? If the book is Shakespeare’s First Folio, it would be an obsessed person — Henry Folger, founder of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Andrea Mays, economist and author of “The Millionaire and the Bard,” discussed the history of the First Folio and Folger’s passion for collecting it in her book and at a lecture on Monday in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

“The First Folio is the book that saved half of Shakespeare’s plays from extinction,” Mays said. “Only half of his plays had been published before he died.”

Two of Shakespeare’s friends who had acted with him, John Heminges and Henry Condell, prepared the First Folio. Mays said the two friends edited the plays, based on their memory of how they were acted.

“The text in the First Folio is really the way the plays were performed when Shakespeare was alive,” Mays said. “They put together the First Folio as a memorial to their friend.”

Born in 1857, Henry Folger attended Amherst College around the time Shakespeare’s works were starting to become an area of study in college English courses, Mays said, which likely piqued his interest. Folger worked for Pratt Oil Company and later became president of Standard Oil, all the while obsessively collecting the First Folio with the help of his wife, Emily. They worked together to create a library to house the collection, and after Henry Folger's death in 1930, the Folger Shakespeare Library opened in 1932.

Most collectors wanted a copy of the First Folio is mint condition, but “Folger wanted every copy he could get his hands on. That was part of the compulsion,” Mays said. “Each copy is slightly different, and by collecting the copies, he could compare them and infer something about their differences.”

Shakespeare all around us

One of the highlights of Mays' lecture was when she pointed out how many Shakespearean phrases are still used in common language today — and how most people are unaware of those origins.

Phrases such as “Knock, knock. Who’s there?” ("Macbeth"), “Break the ice,” ("The Taming of the Shrew"), “It was Greek to me,” ("Julius Caesar"), and “Send packing” ("I Henry IV") are among the many taken from Shakespeare’s plays, demonstrating one aspect of the Bard’s modern-day relevance.

Emory English professor James Morey is looking forward to having the First Folio at Emory and giving his students a chance to experience this important book for themselves. In advance of its arrival, his class is currently working on assignments involving the Second, Third and Fourth folios, on exhibit in the Rose Library corridor until Friday, Oct. 28.

“Literary study relies on objects and data just as much as any other discipline,” Morey said. “Material culture constitutes our evidence, and evidence is a primary feature of Emory’s Quality Enhancement Plan. When it comes to evidence for the study of Shakespeare, the First Folio is a gold mine — it’s the closest and most tangible link to his work for about half of his plays.”

The Mays lecture is part of a series of related events in anticipation of the arrival of the First Folio, which will be on display at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, along with the Second, Third and Fourth folios from the Rose Library exhibit, from Nov. 5 through Dec. 11.

Rosemary M. Magee, director of the Rose Library, said events such as Mays' presentation provide context and background to the First Folio, giving the Emory community an opportunity to enhance their enjoyment of the grand book once it arrives.

“The entire campus community and beyond have the opportunity to experience the many worlds of influence of William Shakespeare, including film, lectures, theater, rare books, poetry and music,” Magee said.

Emory Libraries have additional free events and exhibits planned, such as “Shakespeare’s Words and Works,” the upcoming Creativity Conversation with Emory alumna and playwright Lauren Gunderson and author Daniel Wechsler, on Nov. 14; and “Othello: The Moor Speaks” and “Shakespeare Artists’ Books,” two exhibits running now through Feb. 28, 2017, on Level 2 of the Woodruff Library.

Visit Shakespeare at Emory for the full schedule of events and exhibits on campus.

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