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What's past is prologue: Rare copy of Shakespeare's First Folio highlights exhibit at the Frick

Carnegie Mellon's copy of Shakespeare's First Folio — one of only about 225 known to survive.
Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University Libraries Special Collections
Carnegie Mellon's copy of Shakespeare's First Folio — one of only about 225 known to survive.

The First Folio has been called “the book that gave us Shakespeare.” If that sounds a little dramatic — well, it’s also essentially true, said Sam Lemley.

Lemley is the curator of special collections for the libraries at Carnegie Mellon University, home to a rare copy of the First Folio, the 1623 British publication that was the first to collect all of the Bard’s plays.

While about half of Shakespeare’s 36 plays had been published previously, the rest — including “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth,” “The Tempest” and “Twelfth Night” — might have been lost to posterity without the First Folio.

The opening page of the "The Tempest" in the First Folio.
Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University Libraries Special Collections
The opening page of the "The Tempest" in the First Folio.

CMU also boasts two copies each of the second, third and fourth folios — later editions of Shakespeare’s plays, all also published in the 17th century. On Sat., April 1, The Frick Pittsburgh opens the exhibit “From Stage to Page: 400 Years of Shakespeare in Print.” The exhibit will mark not only the First Folio’s 400th anniversary, but also, said Lemley, the first time all the CMU folios have been publicly exhibited.

Dawn R. Brean, chief curator at the Frick, called the joint exhibition of all four folios “a once-in-a-century” event.

“I think people will leave with a better understanding of how Shakespeare has been kept alive through the technology of print, and how each of these copies has its own stories to tell,” said Lemley.

Shakespeare was, of course, a celebrated playwright and poet during his lifetime. But when he died, in 1616, his actual texts for the stage were not so valued. It took a special memorial effort of his fellow theater-types in the troupe called The King’s Men to pay for publication of “Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies,” of which scholars say no more than 1,000 copies were printed.

No manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays written in his own hand remain. Lemley said the texts in the First Folio were probably copied from some combination of editions of the plays that were previously published (including “Hamlet” and “King Lear”); Shakespeare’s now-lost originals; or copies of those originals made for actors.

The “folio” format — a series of sheets of paper each folded in half to create four pages, then bound — was usually reserved for religious or historical works, scholars say. The First Folio was the earliest British folio to consist entirely of plays.

CMU’s copy of the First Folio is one of only about 225 known to remain. It was donated to the school by Pittsburgh-born philanthropist Charles J. Rosenbloom, following his death, in 1973.

The second, third and fourth folios also have historical significance, says CMU’s Lemley. For instance, the Second Folio, printed in 1632, incorporates the first known publication of work by a young poet named John Milton, later famed for “Paradise Lost.”

Brean said the Frick's exhibit also includes editions of classic children’s books adapting Shakespeare; a famed 1908 illustrated “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; and a replica of the First Folio that visitors can leaf through in the company of the fragile originals in their glass cases.

Supplementary programming at the Frick includes guided discussions and a monthly film series featuring Shakespeare-inspired films from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, including “10 Things I Hate About You,” Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

Off-site, a complementary exhibition at CMU’s Hunt Library is titled “Inventing Shakespeare: Text, Technology, and the Four Folios.” It explores the ways since 1950 that modern technology has informed research into the playwright and his work.

“From Stage to Page” continues through Oct. 1. For more information, see here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: