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See Shakespear’s First Folio, printed in 1623, at the Seattle Public Library

The title page of Shakespeare's First Folio, featuring a sketch of Shakespeare that's believed to be the most accurate of how he looked. (Photo courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library)

Even if you’ve never read or seen one of his plays, everyone knows William Shakespeare. At the very least you know the story of Romeo & Juliet. And the reason we are all familiar with Shakespeare is because of a thick book called First Folio.

“The First Folio was published in 1623 in London,” according to Jodee Fenton, manager of special collections at the Seattle Public Library. “There are 36 plays in the First Folio, all the ones we’re familiar with. If it weren’t for the First Folio we would have lost some of those plays, most likely. Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Romeo and Juliet. Plays that have formed an important part of American culture.”

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For the next month, one of Shakespeare’s original First Folios from 1623 is on display at the downtown Central Library branch. It’s a traveling exhibit from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, commemorating 400 years since Shakespeare’s death.

Scholars believe there were 750 copies of First Folio published and only about 230 remain, in various states of condition.

“The paper is cotton linen rag, it’s handmade paper, it’s really strong, it’s a great paper,” Fenton said. “It’s why we still have the First Folio. The ink is a gall ink, which is also a very good ink, but it’s a little light sensitive. It’s one of the reasons why we’re really concerned about the light levels because we don’t want the ink to fade, and it will.”

The book is on display in a temperature, humidity, and light-regulated clear case, and it’s opened to Hamlet, so you can read this famous line, “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

No matter how many times you visit the exhibit, “It’s going to be open to the same page,” Fenton said. “That’s because we’re not going to open the case. We want to stabilize the book, it’s all for conservation reasons. It’s a great quote. We want to keep the book as safe as possible while it’s open for four weeks, which is a very, very long time for any book to be opened.”

The First Folio was published seven years after Shakespeare died, by a couple of his friends and colleagues.

“This is the first volume ever published of play scripts only,” Fenton said. “Plays were not considered literature at that time, they were not collected by anyone except printers who wanted to own them and they would purchase them from the playwrights and the actors. These were really tools for the actors. Actor’s copies would have notes in it or information about how the play was actually performed or changes that they made. So solidifying the text in a print object was a significant thing because now we had something that could be reprinted exactly the same way. And it began to coral Shakespeare into something that was identifiably his.”

I asked Fenton why Shakespeare still appeals to readers and screenwriters who modernize his stories 400 years later.

“I think because it’s true,” Fenton responded. “I think the plays get after something in each one of them, whether they’re a comedy or a tragedy or a history that elicits something that resonates with basic humanity. So in the case of Romeo and Juliet, the love conquers all, but it doesn’t really. There’s still the tragedy to that and we see that and we feel that.”

The exhibit also explores Seattle’s connection to Shakespeare.

“The first actual professional dramatic theatrical engagement in Seattle was in 1864, Edith Mitchell, down in Plumbers Hall, reading from Shakespeare,” says Seattle Public Library’s Seattle Collection curator, Ann Ferguson. “It’s wonderful that Seattle’s very first professional theatrical engagement was Shakespeare.”

Seeing the First Folio is free, but you still need to get a ticket . Nine thousand people got tickets before the exhibit even opened.

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