I just happened to be watching the news the other night when I heard something that immediately caught my attention…
Stratford, Ontario is a short drive from me and known as a lovely quaint tourist town, the claim to its fame being Stratford Festival. There they are known for their elaborate and brilliant performances of some of Shakespeare’s best-known and well-loved plays.
Celebrating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, The Stratford Festival arranged to display something of great value in honour of the occasion. This item was so valuable that it was only at the museum for two days. It only arrived as people lined up to see it Saturday morning and, according to the museum employee at the entrance to the exhibit, would be leaving not at five, but at ten minutes to five.
William Shakespeare’s First Folio is the first book of his plays, published by his friends and fellow members of The Chamberlain’s Men: John Heminge and Henry Condell. It was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death; before that it was common to find fraudulent versions in circulation.
What’s a folio you ask…well I will tell you because I honestly didn’t know myself, until recently: Folio is Latin for leaf:
“Usually means a leaf in a manuscript. But in printers’ jargon it had another sense: it referred to page size more than one page was printed at the same time on a single large sheet of paper, which was then folded into pages. When the sheet was folded once to form two leaves, making four pages, the page and book size was described as folio. A folio page is usually about 38 centimetres (15 inches) tall.”
Driving into the parking lot of the museum – a police security presence was obvious. This was serious stuff, not that they had any fear of me attempting a theft of such an artifact. I am not that gutsy, but imagine if I had pulled that off? Sounds like a good idea for a story, just fiction of course.
We arrived at a good time, a lull in the lineup. Only ten people were being permitted in the room at one time. I was glad to hear that cameras were allowed inside, but no flash was permitted. Any direct bright light could damage this centuries old document. Anything to be done to prevent fading of the writing of this special piece of literature was being done.
On entering I heard the hushed conversations of the other people and a humming of what turned out to be a dehumidifier. This book needed to be in just the right environment, which included temperature and lighting. It couldn’t be too humid and any lights were not aimed directly at or on it.
I tried to take in my surroundings then. I knew it could turn out to be rather pointless, me here to see some old book hidden in a case. What was I going to get out of this anyway?
A few old photos and the dresses worn in past performances of Shakespeare’s plays were on display in the room.
My knowledge of actress Maggie Smith is fairly recent, with her starring roles in the Harry Potter films and more recently still in Downton Abbey. This photo didn’t even look like her, according to my sister, but it was from her performance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1977 and that was almost thirty years ago.
The drawers in the cabinet held the separate pages of the folio. It was hard for me to comprehend and my sister read some of it to me, a lot made difficult by the old English writing. I felt like I was in a jewelry store, with the glass cabinets holding precious jewels. This time I was looking in at something so much more precious to me: words.
An introduction by fellow playwright, poet, and literary critic Ben Jonson. This was all taking me back to a time I can not possibly grasp. It’s hard to even imagine what it was like back in the seventeenth century, of which Shakespeare himself was only alive to see the first sixteen years. His plays were mostly written and performed in the final years of the 1500s, at the open-air playhouse The Globe Theatre, on the south bank of The thames.
Also in the room was a photo, included in the folio, of William Shakespeare himself. Recently, with the 450th anniversary, there has been a lot of debate about this likeness. Is it truly him?
The artist responsible was only fifteen when Shakespeare died so it is unlikely he knew the man, but more likely he knew people who did and must have seen a photograph from the time or had someone describe what Shakespeare looked like in life.
I find it almost impossible, even in the face of some of the most proven methods, to truly believe that any of this has survived or is the truth. That is the part of history that both baffles and enthrals me. I would love to own something as precious as a book from so long ago. Even hearing it explained how something made of paper with ink imprinted on the pages lasts centuries I can’t quite fathom how. The diaries I own of my grandmother are only barely fifty years old and already some of them are so worn and delicate. How does anything make it this far through time?
Luck must play a big part in this, but you simply can not discount the care someone must have taken over the years. On our way out I hear a voice speaking with authority, or with something like it. This voice sounds young, but unmistakably informed. I pause to listen and speak to her.
She is only a summer student here and she reiterates that she is no expert: “Just someone who enjoyed researching all this.”
Through something called
Young Canada Works
she was given this opportunity for the summer, and she had clearly already done the sort of research I was relieved of having to do myself.
Her knowledge as a student, receiving her Masters and her interest in rare old books was evident. I could feel her passion for the subject matter and I could see why. It was something like that which drew me to this museum to see this famous piece of English literature. Within hours it would be back to its home at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.
Finally, on my last post for this week I will speak about my trip upstairs in the museum to check out the World War exhibit.