Centuries-old Shakespeare compilation coming to Iowa City in 2016

First Folio
Pages of William Shakespeare’s First Folio at the Bodlean Library, Oxford — photo by Ben Sutherland via Flickr Creative Commons

Published by Shakespeare’s colleagues in 1623 — seven years after the iconic playwright’s death — First Folio represents the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works, many of which went unpublished during his lifetime.

With 233 known copies remaining today (from an original print of about 800), and book collectors and traders paying up to $6 million per copy, it’s one of the most valuable books in the world. And come 2016, an original copy of First Folio will pay visit to Iowa City.

The University of Iowa announced last week that it has been selected as a host site for a national exhibition, organized by the The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. In partnership with the Cincinnati Museum Center and the American Library Association, the organization is bringing an original copy of First Folio to cultural sites across the country next year.

The traveling exhibition, dubbed First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare, is aptly named indeed. First Folio is the compilation that gave us Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Tempest and many more plays that — in the Folio‘s absence — might have otherwise been forgotten.

Hundreds of cultural venues applied to the program, with organizers selecting one exhibition site for each state, in addition to sites in both Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

The fact that the University of Iowa was able to apply to such a program, let alone succeed, is a testament to the renovations taking place at the UI Main Library, says Greg Prickman, Co-Director of Special Collections and University Archives at the UI.

The exhibition area at the north end of UI Main Library is currently being remodeled into a “modern, museum-standard exhibition hall,” Prickman says. Upgrades to the space’s environmental conditions and security have allowed the UI to pursue exhibitions that would have been impossible to host, previously — First Folio included.

“When this opportunity came along, we were able to take a look at it and say, you know what, this is the sort of thing that we can do now,” Prickman said. “This is really one of the reasons why we wanted to remodel that space.”

When the exhibition arrives in 2016, the UI Libraries will collaborate with other local organizations, including various departments, Riverside Theatre and UNESCO, to host programs and activities in the spirit of Shakespeare.

“We’re kind of envisioning it as like a four-week Shakespeare festival in town while the Folio is here,” Prickman said.

The exhibit will also focus on bookmaking and publishing itself. Prickman says that collaborators will explore how the book was made, in the midst of the hand-press era, and how it fit into the book trade of the time.

Although only 233 known copies of First Folio — formally titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies — exist today, the exhibition itself is made possible because The Folger Shakespeare Library owns 82 of them.

When the Iowa City copy arrives, its pages will be opened to display the line “to be or not to be” from Hamlet.

“This is a pretty ambitious program that they have developed at The Folger Shakespeare Library,” Prickman said. “I mean, to send a copy to all 50 states … that is a very ambitious plan, and it’ll be very exciting to see how that plays out.

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