“To be or not to be.”
A rare collection of William Shakespeare’s works will be opened to the most-quoted line from “Hamlet” when it is displayed at the University of Arizona Feb. 15 through March 15.
To mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., is sending First Folios to every state in the nation. The UA is Arizona’s host site.
What is a First Folio? After Shakespeare died in 1616, friends and actors in the King’s Men, the playwright’s troupe, collected 36 of his works and published them together as a folio.
“That was a pretty big deal, said Jane Prescott-Smith, the special assistant to the dean of the university libraries.
“It was kind of scandalous back in 1623 to have a folio of plays, because folios were traditionally reserved for serious stuff like the Bible,” Prescott-Smith said.
However, if these men hadn’t put together the folio, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays would have been lost, including “Macbeth,” “Julius Caesar” and “Taming of the Shrew,” said Lisa Falk, the exhibit’s project manager.
By the numbers: Only 750 folios were printed, and 223 remain today, Prescott-Smith said. The Folger Shakespeare Library has 82 of those copies and is sending six on a cross-country tour this year . A folio will visit every state and Puerto Rico.
The Tucson stop: Falk said one reason that the university was chosen is because the Arizona State Museum knows how to handle artifacts like the folio.
“The folio is a rare book, so it has specific climate controls that are important, and office security controls,” Falk said. “The museum has a renowned conservation staff, and they (The Folger ) were interested in having it here because we have a conservator on staff.”
The folio will be enclosed in a climate-controlled space and open to the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in “Hamlet.”
Several local events surround the folio’s visit here, including discussions at the Tucson Festival of Books, March 12-13 on the UA campus.
More than “thou” and “thee”: Though the impact the folio has had might not be immediately apparent, examining the contemporary English language reveals its long-lasting effect.
“I think that one of the things that’s going to be most surprising for people who visit the exhibit is coming to understand how much our language today — phrases we take for granted — were first penned by Shakespeare,” Prescott-Smith said. She has a daughter named Jessica, and said she learned that Shakespeare was the first person who used the name Jessica in print.
“What Folger (the Shakespeare library) emphasizes is that Shakespeare’s words are your words,” Falk said.
Sayings like “brave new world,” “all the world’s a stage,” and “the be all and end all” were first used by Shakespeare.
Can I touch it? Because visitors won’t be able to flip through the folio to find their favorite plays, the exhibit will offer two alternatives. Several iPads will allow visitors to scroll through the folio.
There will also be a touchable facsimile made of rag paper, created in collaboration with Panther Peak Bindery, so visitors can see how pages were sewn together in the 1600s and get a feel for how hefty the folio is.
This interactive display will have the first seven pages of the folio printed in it.
Along with these hands-on aspects of the exhibit, there will be six informational panels with accompanying Spanish and Braille handouts .
But the real star of the show is, of course, the folio itself.
“There’s something very powerful about seeing the primary resource, the original document, as opposed to just reading the words on a screen or in a contemporary book,” Prescott-Smith said.
“If you live in a place like Arizona, unless you’ve got the money to fly to D.C., chances are good you’re never going to see this book. It’s really an icon.”