A community celebration of the Bard

Humanities, Libraries

All the world’s a stage—and for six weeks this fall, UVic will be a major player in a community celebration of the works of the Bard. The university is joining in the unique collaboration, Shakespeare Onstage-Offstage, from Sept. 21 to Oct. 25 with Pacific Opera Victoria, the Belfry Theatre, the Greater Victoria Public Library, the Royal BC Museum and other partners. One of the events is a public display of all four Shakespeare Folios in one place, for the first time ever in BC.

All four folios on display

UVic Libraries and Department of English are hosting Shakespeare’s “Big Books” at UVic’s downtown Legacy Art Gallery. This major exhibit is an opportunity for everyone to view all four 17th-century folios (including the famous First Folio) on display in one location. These very same pages came off the printing press only a few years after Shakespeare’s death, and fewer than 240 copies remain of an estimated 750 First Folios originally printed that century.

Without the famous First Folio, there would be no Macbeth, The Tempest or Antony and Cleopatra.

“The First Folio is one of the most iconic books ever printed,” says University Librarian Jonathan Bengtson. “We are delighted to bring this work together with the three other 17th-century editions.”

The free downtown exhibit, curated by Drs. Erin E. Kelly and Janelle Jenstad of UVic’s English department, is possible because of generous loans of Folios Two and Four from the Legislative Library of BC and Folios One and Three from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

“Because every copy of a folio is unique, it's always of interest to look at individual copies of folios,” says Kelly. “And when people see early books in person, what should strike them is that this is simultaneously a very familiar object—it’s a book and we've got books all around us, on our bookshelves and bedside tables—and yet, it also reminds us how long books have been important. There are not a lot of 500-year-old technologies around right now that I could put into people's hands that they would know how to use.

“We're certainly living at a moment when there's a big push toward digitization. There are multiple online copies of the folios. But to see a First Folio in person helps you appreciate the material nature of the thing itself.”

Folio as format

None of the plays printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime was in folio form; instead, they were printed in small single-play volumes. “All ‘folio’ means is format,” explains Kelly. “It’s the size of book you get when you fold the paper in half.

“We are striving to contextualize the folios in the context of early modern books.” The standard size of 17th-century paper was roughly 11 by 15 inches, which is comparable to a tabloid-size page today. “A book tells us how it wants to be used,” says Kelly. “With ‘folio,’ what you are essentially saying is, ‘This is a big expensive book.’ A much smaller octavo would have been [tucked into the pocket of a Londoner in Shakespeare’s time and] carried around. And we still do this. Cheap paperbacks go in my bag and I read them on the bus. Different ways of using books have been around since the 17th century.”

Courtesy of UVic’s Special Collections, six early modern books of differing sizes will also be on display, including a miniature bible. “It’s so small, it's difficult to read,” says Kelly. Sixty-four pages were printed on one sheet of paper then folded to produce this tiny 1774 Bible in Miniature. “These types of miniature books tended to contain things people already knew—like songs or psalms—so it has more of a talismanic implication,” rather than being a book to read closely.

After Shakespeare’s death in 1616, two actors from his playing company began hunting down manuscripts and print editions with the aim of compiling a complete collection of his dramatic works. In 1623, a large volume (roughly the size of a coffee-table book today) containing 36 plays, as well as dedicatory poems and a portrait of Shakespeare, was produced and became what scholars now refer to as the First Folio. Collectors and scholars value it as one of the most important books in the English language.

The other three folios were produced in 1632, 1663-64 and 1685 respectively.

More on the university's special library collections

Experts in Shakespearean study

Jenstad is assistant coordinating editor of the hugely popular Internet Shakespeare Editions (ISE), a UVic-based website offering unprecedented online access to the Bard’s plays, as well as a database of images and data from productions of Shakespeare on stage and film, and a Renaissance library of the writer’s life and times. The site logs over a million and a half hits a month from people all across the globe.

ISE creator Michael Best, a professor emeritus and former chair of the department, helped obtain permission to display the second and fourth folios owned by BC’s legislative library. (UVic scholars did not know about these copies until Best and University Librarian Jonathan Bengtson learned separately but simultaneously, and very fortuitously last fall, of their existence.)

Best has said before that he got his idea for the ISE in the mid 1990s once the web had the capability to display images: “Shakespeare was, in modern terms, a multi-media writer. There are many layers to his works and he wrote for everyone.”

UVic has also earned accolades for Jenstad’s Map of Early Modern London, which allows viewers to trace and imagine the streets that Shakespeare and his fellow players would have walked as they learned their now-famous lines.

More on the department’s research

Launching the celebration

Another UVic exhibit opening Sept. 16, Falstaff and Music, affords an early glimpse of the six-week celebration. Curated by Jenstad and Kelly along with students from the English department, it will trace the history of Shakespeare’s vain, inept, comic knight through a display of rare books, scores, and performance artefacts from UVic’s Special Collections in the Mearns Centre for Learning—McPherson Library. This is Jenstad’s second exhibit linked to a Pacific Opera Victoria production of an operatic Shakespeare adaptation.

UVic Libraries led the early enthusiasm for a special city-wide celebration in Victoria, and the two exhibits described above are just two of many special collaborations over the years between UVic Libraries and Faculty of Humanities.

“The reason we have these texts [on display at UVic’s downtown gallery] is because many people collaborated and cooperated and brought their own individual expertise to this large project,” adds Kelly. “It's a case study in collaboration.”

Shakespeare Onstage-Offstage will bring exhibits and special events to libraries, theatres, art galleries, classrooms, concert halls, and pubs on campus and around the city.

Its official launch takes place Saturday, Sept. 21 from 11 a.m. to noon in the Central Branch courtyard of the Greater Victoria Public Library (735 Broughton St). An advance press release by the festival partners (Sept. 9) includes further details of the launch.

The full brochure (PDF) and additional information can be found on the UVic Libraries event listings (uvic.ca/library/featured/events) and ISE event landing page (internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/onstageoffstage).

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In this story

Keywords: Shakespeare, arts, English

People: Jonathan Bengtson, Erin E. Kelly, Janelle Jenstad

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