The mother of all literary artifacts is coming to Drew University. The first printing of the entirety of William Shakespeare’s plays, known as the First Folio, will be on display at the university’s Madison campus from October 6 through October 30.
Awarded the opportunity to be the only New Jersey institution to host the cultural treasure by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Drew has curated an entire festival around the arrival of the folio that will make any Shakespearephile weep. From guided tours to lectures from some of the most acclaimed literary authorities and full productions of Shakespeare’s plays, to go or not to go will certainly not be a question.
“It’s probably one of the most coveted books in the world,” says Chris Ceraso, chairman of Drew’s Department of Theatre and Dance, and project manager for First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare. Ceraso has been at the center of the folio project for Drew, and has seen firsthand the tremendous significance of this centuries-old tome. “This event is pulling together every office on our campus. I have been here for 15 years and I’m meeting people for the first time through this experience. This has brought everybody together.”
What exactly is the First Folio? Published in 1623, just six years after the playwright’s death, it is the first edition of Shakespeare’s works printed in a single anthology. It contains 36 of his plays, including 18 that had never been published at the time.
That means that had the anthology never been created, we might not have “Macbeth,” “Julius Caesar” or “The Tempest” today. There were only 800 made, and only 233 copies survive. It should come as no surprise that it is one of the most valuable literary artifacts, and typically sells at auction for $6 million.
To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, Folger is touring the folios across the country. Drew will be the only institution in New Jersey to play host to the Shakespearian jewel.
“If you say this book gave us Shakespeare,” Ceraso says, referencing the exhibition’s title, “it has also given us a tremendous amount of the foundation of our culture. Not only literary and theatrical culture, but our humanitarian culture, as well. Each of Shakespeare’s plays has such a wealth of continually-reinvented understanding of human nature. It might be grandiose to say, but many people consider the book to be a secular bible.”
While the First Folio may be treasured for the works it contains, it also deserves to be admired for its own marvel of craftsmanship. Ceraso reminds that in 1623 when it was published, printing press technology was a painstakingly-slow process, in which each copy had to be forged individually.
“It was very much like buying a painting,” Ceraso says.
Keep in mind that every letter of each of Shakespeare’s words had to be set by hand on a piece of sculpted type. Ceraso points out that due to each typesetter’s individual touch and human error, each First Folio is unique.
Because of the arduous printing process at that time, only the most worthy of literary works were published.
“It’s an extraordinary testament to how Shakespeare was valued in his own time,” Ceraso says. “The fact that the book exists tells you that his impact was understood while he was alive. After his death, people felt like, ‘We cannot let this disappear into the ether.’”
The First Folio was created to protect Shakespeare’s plays. Naturally, after nearly 400 years, the folios themselves must be protected. The book will be on display in the Wendel Room of Mead Hall. Ceraso and his team at Drew have been making preparations to host the folio for over a year. This process has included temperature regulation and monitoring humidity levels, as well as controlling lumens, as the book must be kept in a low-lighting environment.
In addition to marveling at the folio (which will be opened to the “to be or not to be” passage of “Hamlet”), visitors can immerse themselves in the world of Shakespeare with all the programs Drew has curated.
Drew is performing a full-scale production of “Hamlet.” The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, whose Main Stage is located on Drew’s campus, is performing “Richard III.” And a speaker series of renowned Shakespearian scholars includes David Kastan, a celebrated historian and author from Yale University.
Visitors will be drawn to Drew for the First Folio, but it’s the educational programs and artistic installations that Ceraso hopes will enchant the crowds of Shakespeare lovers.
“I’m excited to have the book because of what it represents,” Ceraso says. “It’s charged the atmosphere in a way that has enabled us to create a whole grand festival around the legacy of Shakespeare and his work.”