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Shakespeare's First Folio Goes on Display in Downtown Cleveland

title page of First Folio
The Folger Shakespeare Library
The Folger Shakespeare Library
The portrait of Shakespeare on the First Folio's title page was said by his friend Ben Jonson to be a good likeness.

One of the world’s oldest and rarest books is on display in downtown Cleveland. Shakespeare’s First Folio is on a nationwide tour and one of the stops is the Cleveland Public Library. 

A uniformed guard is stationed outside a small, locked room on the third floor of the main library. This is a secure and hallowed space.

“Very much so. This is the room we call the treasure room,” says Pam Eyerdam, fine arts and special collections manager at Cleveland Public Library.  

She says actor friends of Shakespeare published the First Folio, 36 of his plays, in 1623.  “A group of them got together not long after Shakespeare passed away.”  

library building
The Cleveland Public Library was chosen by the Folger Shakespeare Library to host the display of the First Folio.

Fellow actors preserved Shakespeare’s legacy
They printed only 750 copies. But they made history with the first complete edition of Shakespeare’s work. 

“That’s actually the legacy that they have created, “says Eyerdam, “that we know now of Shakespeare.”  

Today, only 234 First Folios remain. One turned up in 2014 in a public library in northern France, and the latest was discovered in April on a remote Scottish island. 

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. owns 82 First Folios, the largest collection.

Sharing the treasure nationwide
And this summer to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the treasure is being shared.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Folger library called for proposals to host the First Folio. "One library in each state in the United States was chosen," says Eyerdam. "Cleveland Public Library was luckily chosen to represent the state of Ohio.”

She says the news rocked the building. “Big excitement. I got goosebumps just talking about it right now.”     

The library is showing off the treasured tome in a modern, interactive way.

Videos and related programs accompany the book display
On a touch mural display wall, visitors can explore digitized texts of all the plays and watch informative videos.

“Costume design, conservation treatment, and about the plays, “says Eyerdam.  

video display
Cleveland Public Library archivist Raymond Rossman demonstrates the touch mural display wall where visitors can watch videos and read the texts of all the plays in the First Folio.

In the Hamlet video, we hear excerpts of the dialogue spoken in many different languages.

The library is also taking the occasion of the First Folio’s visit to display its own rare Shakespeare collection, an illustrated version dating from 1786. 

“Engraved prints," says Eyerdam, "that were published by a gentleman in England named Boydell.”  

In addition, lectures, book and film discussions, workshops and performances by  Great Lakes Theater are scheduled throughout the summer and fall to celebrate the First Folio.

Prestigious format
Pam Eyerdam says the word folio refers to the paper it’s printed on. The Gutenberg Bible of 1455 was another famous folio.

“It’s a large sheet of paper, over 48 centimeters.”  

Cleveland Public Library Archivist Raymond Rossman says making a folio was a complicated process. 

“A large sheet of paper that’s only been folded once, printed on two columns. Multiple pages would be folded in half and then gathered into quires, or signatures. These are all stitched together before being bound up in the end boards.”  

Worth the time and effort to preserve for posterity
It was a painstaking endeavor, but that’s how it had to be done four centuries ago.

“It’s close to the oldest book in the building right now,” says Chatham Ewing, the Cleveland Public Library’s Digital Library Specialist, whose responsible for digitization and preservation of the library’s collections.

Ewing says Shakespeare’s friends had to work hard to collect and preserve his work.  

“You had to have a crew of compositors and typesetters, but then you’d have a whole other industry that was involved with paper-making, and most of the processes were manual. Those who were doing all that were going to find a way to recover costs, and that made the book very expensive.” 

Chatham Ewing
Chatham Ewing is responsible for preservation of the Cleveland Public Library's collection.

Elizabethan status symbol
The First Folio would have been a status symbol for the Elizabethan elite, "those who had adequate means to afford a book that was this complex and large and expensive to make.”

Archivist Rossman says the condition of the 400-year-old leather-bound book shows it was made to last.

“Folio was a very prestigious format for books. It was meant to be conspicuous. You’d use good probably linen-based paper, linen rather than wood pulp, and linen holds up pretty well over the years, and so it’s maintained its integrity pretty well.”  

Special measures to protect the treasure
Opened to "Hamlet," the First Folio will reside in its specially-constructed display case in the Cleveland Public Library Treasure Room through July.

Every word on the two pages shown is perfectly legible, but Chatham Ewing says the lighting has to be dim. 

“We’ve set up the cradle to hold the book so that the book itself won’t be damaged by being put on display. Both the visible and the ultraviolet light has been tightly controlled. We have tight controls over humidity and temperature.” 

Access is also being tightly controlled. Shakespeare fans have been clamoring to see it, but only 20 at a time are allowed into the Treasure Room.

One of the first books in Europe
It was a rare privilege to see the book back in Shakespeare’s day, too. The First Folio was one of the first books to be published in Europe, but Special Collections Manager Pam Eyerdam says there wasn’t much of a market for books at the time. 

“You’re dealing with a lot of people that still did not know how to read.”   

Shakespeare’s own mother and father never read his plays. It wasn’t just that they were illiterate. Until the First Folio, 18 of the plays including "Macbeth," "Twelfth Night" and "Julius Caesar," had never been published.

One of the exhibits for First Folio explores controversies about pirated manuscripts and famous Shakespeare forgeries.

Chatham Ewing says the First Folio editors had to work from handwritten notes and scribbled scraps of dialogue. 

“An actor would be able to accurately transcribe the part that the actor played, but would be working from his memory of the other parts. Or you might have had somebody in the audience who could memorize the play while they were listening to it and could then go and transcribe the entire thing.” 

Protection from pilferers
But Ewing says John Heminges and Henry Condell, members of Shakespeare’s acting company, The King’s Men, were determined to make a definitive version to protect their friend’s work. 

“Up until the time of the First Folio, Shakespeare’s rivals tried to get hold of his texts and alter them and use them for their own ends.” 

Shakespeare’s loyal friends paid tribute to him in the First Folio’s preface. 

“We wondered Shakespeare that thou wenteth so soon from the world stage to the grave’s tiring rooms. We thought thee dead, but this, thy printed worth tells thy spectators that thou went but forth to enter with applause.” 

Chatham Ewing says Shakespeare’s fellow actors published the First Folio in part as a labor of love.

“They felt that it was very important to gather the plays together and preserve them for posterity, “says Ewing. “Of course it was also a commercial project.” 

touch mural wall
Recitations from the English Speaking Union's annual Shakespeare competition are among the videos, images and texts patrons can play with in the Cleveland Digital Public Library on the third floor of the downtown library.

Incalculable value
In 1623 the first copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio were sold for one pound, the equivalent of about $200 today.

Today it’s one of the world’s most valuable books. Christie’s auctioned one off in New York in 2001 for more than $6 million.

But Chatham Ewing says numbers don’t begin to tell the story. 

“It is right to say that a book like this is priceless. It offers to us the most authoritative version of Shakespeare’s plays. And the value there is incalculable.”