By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Andrew Councill for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Underground, not far from the handsome Great Hall at the Folger Shakespeare Library where a fascinating exhibition is on display, just beyond the institution’s reading rooms, down its back stairs and through a vault door that seems far more imposing than the “rocks impregnable” Shakespeare invoked in a sonnet, there is a wall on which more than 70 volumes lie flat on mounted shelves.
Each book has a different color; each has different dimensions. Some are boxed, others bound in goatskin. But once they were nearly identical. Each was printed in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. And despite the motley array, these shelves hold one-third of the world’s surviving copies of a book that one scholar called “the greatest contribution made in a single volume to the secular literature of any age or country.”
That book is the Shakespeare First Folio. Beginning in 1893, and for the next 35 years, 82 copies were obsessively purchased by the library’s founder, Henry Clay Folger. Only 232 such folios still exist anywhere. And since the highest price paid for one was more than $6 million in 2001, the fiscal value of Folger’s collection may be getting closer to the worth of the literary riches found within.
Those riches are something that this exhibition — “Fame, Fortune & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio” — nearly takes for granted, which it has every right to, given the Shakespearean halo that hovers over the Folger. One copy of the First Folio is always on view here (and online). This show displays another 10 Folios from the library’s vaults (along with one on loan from a private collector).
The First Folio is essentially Shakespeare’s collected dramatic works, posthumously compiled by his fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell. More important, it is the only source for 18 of Shakespeare’s plays. If it weren’t for the First Folio, there would be no extant copies of “The Tempest,” “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth,” “Twelfth Night” “As You Like It” or “The Winter’s Tale.” All the world wouldn’t be a stage; no countrymen would lend anyone their ears; and life wouldn’t be a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.