Entertainment, On A High Note

Uniquely Nashville Arts: The First Folio – The book that gave us Shakespeare

PHOTO COURTESY OF AQUINAS COLLEGE

As Nashvillians wrap up holiday celebrations and launch into a new year, they have some interesting options for arts-related events, chief among them the exhibit of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s work at The Parthenon. Lauren Bufferd, assistant director for the Parthenon, spoke with Sports & Entertainment Nashville recently about the exhibit.

S&E Nashville: Suppose you are teaching “First Folio 101.” What three comments would you make about the exhibit for a general audience?

Bufferd:

  1. The Folio was created in 1623 seven years after Shakespeare’s death by two colleagues who were concerned that many of his plays wouldn’t be remembered. During Shakespeare’s time, plays were not considered literature and so generally not preserved. They were printed in a smaller quarto style and were cheap books, meant to be used and then discarded. Two members of Shakespeare’s acting company, John Heminges and Henry Condell, collected all the works of Shakespeare’s and arranged for them to be printed in a single book. Because no manuscripts exist, the Folio is the closest thing we have to the plays as Shakespeare wrote them.
  1. The First Folio is the only copy we have for about 18 of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. There are 18 plays that appear only in the First Folio and would have been lost. “Macbeth,” “Julius Caesar,” “The Tempest,” “Twelfth Night,” “Measure for Measure,” “The Winter’s Tale,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors” and “The Taming of the Shrew” are just some of the work. Not only would we not have these plays, but many phrases and sayings that are popular today, such as “Double double toil and trouble” (“Macbeth”) and “Friends Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” (“Julius Caesar”) would be unknown.
  1. Scholars think that about 750 folios were printed in 1623. Of those, we know where 233 are; there are 83 at the Folger Shakespeare Library alone. The original price of the folio in a calfskin binding was about 1 pound. The most recent sale of a First Folio was about 5.2 million.

Photo of reading room, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C. Nashville’s Parthenon was selected to display a copy of the First Folio. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PARTHENON

S&E Nashville: The exhibit of First Folio in Nashville is the “last stop” of this Folger Library tour in the United States. Why is it especially appropriate that the First Folio is on exhibit in Nashville, and at the Parthenon?

Bufferd: To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., planned an ambitious project of sending some of their extensive collection of folios all over the country. Museums and libraries from all 50 states bid on the opportunity to exhibit this priceless book and the Parthenon was chosen for the state of Tennessee. We think the Parthenon is a great venue for the First Folio. As one of the pinnacles of western architecture, the Parthenon is considered to be an iconic building. Shakespeare is an iconic author and the folio, a masterpiece of early printing. So having the First Folio at the Parthenon is an opportunity to exhibit an iconic book in an iconic building.

S&E Nashville: The final special event for the First Folio exhibit is “Shakespeare Allowed,” a reading “out loud” of “Hamlet” offered by the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. With that in mind, please talk about 1. The First Folio being opened to Hamlet’s well-known soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” and 2. The collaborations that have made the First Folio exhibit in Nashville so successful.

Bufferd: One of the highlights of doing this exhibit is the relationships we’ve made. We have partnered with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, the Nashville Public Library, the Nashville Branch of the English Speaking Union and Montgomery Bell Academy. Our programming has been incredible—from a puppet show version of “Hamlet” to live performances in the gallery—and our weekly family programing, Kidsville, has focused on the folio for the last two months. We’ve had visitors come from all over world, and school groups from Nashville and the surrounding region. Having the Folio at the Parthenon has been a wonderful experience.

The Folio is open to one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s soliloquies—among the most famous and most quoted words ever written. This incredible soliloquy is rich with meaning and it’s been incredible to watch our visitor’s respond to this important text. One of the most special things I witnessed was a mother and her eight-year-old daughter.

Title page, First Folio. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PARTHENON

The mother asked her daughter to read Hamlet’s most famous words aloud and though she struggled a bit with the language, the daughter completed the first few lines. The mother then said that the daughter would always remember that the first time she ever read Shakespeare was from this very important book. Witnessing this brought tears to my eyes.

“Shakespeare Allowed” is the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s monthly invitation to read Shakespeare out loud in a reading circle. This program usually takes place at the Nashville Public Library, to celebrate the last week of the exhibition, the program is moving to the Parthenon for the day.

We will be sorry to see the Folio go, but are already working on our next exhibit, Cowan Rejoined, which will feature all 63 of the paintings that James M. Cowan gifted the city of Nashville in 1927. This exhibit will open on January 28.

For information on the First Folio exhibit, visit the official website.