Approximately seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, members of his playing company, the Kingsmen, created the first edition of all of his collected works, now called the “First Folio.” Without it, the world may have never known some 18 of his 38 plays, including “Macbeth,” “Twelfth Night” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Recently, that ancient collection of plays ended up in Portland.

In commemoration of Shakespeare’s death 400 years ago, the “First Folio” is making its way on tour through all 50 states, with its most recent stop being Portland Public Library. The library will display the folio in their Shakespeare exhibit until April 2.

Associate Professor of English and Chair of the English Department Aaron Kitch and Assistant Professor of Theater Abigail Killeen presented on the Folio in the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library this past Tuesday. Though both professors planned their lectures independently from one another, their commemorations shared similar themes of the first folio’s anthropomorphic abilities. 

Kitch introduced the idea of each folio’s capacity to be both living and dead. While kept away in Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., the books are akin to corpses in a morgue, awaiting resurrection, explained Kitch. Even when the plays are brought out on tour, their heavily guarded presentation, in bullet proof casing, gives them a “tomb like aura,” he said. 
However, the books themselves remain full of life. The materials used to construct them are all biological—using lambskin, calfskin or old clothes. As Kitch puts it, the plays themselves “are a textual monument and ode to human interaction.” 

The creation of the folios themselves has also been a wholly human effort. Investors, printers and a series of typesetters hand crafted the first folio, and as such, it is not without human error. Because of this, Kitch notes, no two folios are exactly the same. For some of the most famous and expensive books in the world, they are “not, not hack job,” noted Kitch.

In her lecture, Killeen also noted the humanity and liveliness of the texts themselves. She explained that unlike other existing texts and plays out there, Shakespeare’s folio presents universal themes in a very human way.

“We recognize ourselves in [the texts],” said Killeen. When they are performed correctly, the texts are able to come to life. 

As Kitch notes, there are numerous differences between folios. Killeen, throughout her career in theatre, has used these differences as an important and unique tool of analysis in performance. Examining the differences between the first edition and corrections to the text that have been made since its publication has given actors and readers alike invitations for creative inquiry and interpretation. 

In an interactive demonstration with the audience, Killeen showed how differences in emphasis, punctuation and verse in the first folio can completely change a work’s meaning. In a line from Hamlet’s famous To Be or Not to Be soliloquy, Killeen demonstrated how the line, “The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,” is different in the original text in which “despised” is replaced by “disprized”. The meaning of the line shifts suddenly from an unrequited love to a love that is returned, but is not enough, adding new depth to Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship. Access to the “First Folio” endows familiar texts so familiar with new meanings.

Kitch and Killeen hoped that students and community members alike would walk away from the lecture with renewed energy and excitement for the material. 

“I hope the text lives in a different way for them,” Killeen said. “I also hope that they’ll see more Shakespeare and more performances.”