Shakespeare’s First Folio is on display in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Art exhibits and musicians go on tour but what about an almost 400-year-old book?
William Shakespeare’s First Folio — the first complete collected edition of his plays and one of the world’s most influential books — is coming to the Middlebury College Museum of Art Feb. 2-28. The exhibit, “First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library” marks the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. Along with the month-long exhibition, the college will host performances, a workshop, speakers, a film screening, family events and a folio festival that features Renaissance music, gallery talks and a live theater performance. Middlebury collaborated with several community partners, including the Ilsley Library and the Town Hall Theater, to offer a number of the activities.
“It is because of this book that Shakespeare is known as the most famous author in the English language,” said Middlebury Director of Special Collections Rebekah Irwin, who organized the events. 
Timothy Billings, Middlebury College professor of English, offered several reasons for Shakespeare’s enduring fame and popularity. “The stories are wonderful and the language is fascinating,” he said. “They’re sometimes moving and sometimes truly hilarious, and there are passages that take your breath away. The real secret to his longevity, I think, is that they are so varied that everyone finds something to love about them.”
The First Folio includes 36 Shakespeare plays. Eighteen of them, including “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth” and “Twelfth Night,” would probably have been lost without the creation of the First Folio. Compiled by two of Shakespeare’s friends and fellow theater colleagues, it was published in 1623 — seven years after his death in 1616. Just 233 copies of the First Folio survive today, 82 of which are in the Folger collection in Washington, D.C.
The Folger will send out a total of 18 First Folios across the country. Some of them will make multiple stops so that every U.S. state will host a First Folio at some point during the tour. Middlebury College will serve as the host site for Vermont, and is among the first 10 sites where the First Folio will be on display. The exhibit locations include 23 museums, 20 universities, five public libraries, three historical societies and a theater. The complete list of host sites and tour dates is available on the Folger’s website.
The First Folio will be opened to the most quoted line from Shakespeare, “To be or not to be,” from “Hamlet.” Accompanying the book will be a six-panel exhibition exploring Shakespeare’s impact, then and now, along with interactive, digital activities.
Highlights of the associated events at the college include a keynote talk on Feb. 3 titled “Shakespeare in America” by James Shapiro, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. In a talk beginning at 7 p.m. at the Mahaney Center for the Arts on the Middlebury College campus, Shapiro will explore how Shakespeare’s works have served as a prism through which Americans have experienced major historical events and issues, from revolution to social justice. The talk is co-sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council.
On Feb. 18, the First Folio Festival will feature The Mountain Ayres, Middlebury College’s coed student a cappella group dedicated to the appreciation of Renaissance music. The Middlebury Actors Workshop will perform “Straight Up Shakespeare,” an energetic, fast-paced romp through the playwright’s most famous scenes and sonnets. Renaissance refreshments, instrumental music, children’s activities, and Shakespeare selfies will also add to the festival atmosphere.
Irwin hopes that the exhibition and accompanying events inspire public excitement about Shakespeare and the power of the book. “This is a wonderful opportunity to see a rare and influential book,” she said. “At a time when physical books themselves are sometimes brushed off as outmoded, the First Folio reminds us that they may be more tenacious and long-lasting than any of us can imagine.”
The college is also encouraging local schools to make field trips to the exhibit. Courtney Krahn, an English teacher at Middlebury Union Middle School, is excited about seeing the First Folio with her class. “The First Folio’s arrival fortuitously coincides with our eighth grade unit on Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’” said Krahn. “Bringing our students to the college to view and discuss the almost 400-year-old book will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, this will be both a professional and personal highlight of the year.”
Off campus, the Ilsley Library in Middlebury will host a Shakespeare story time, a Feb. 10 (3:30 p.m.) screening of “The Lion King,” and a Shakespeare film-making camp during the week of February break. Beyond Addison County, there will be talks by Dartmouth Professor Emeritus Peter Saccio at Norwich Congregational Church and by Middlebury College Professor of English Timothy Billings at the Brownell Library in Essex Junction.
All events are open to the public and all, except for one, are free (tickets are required for one performance/master class). More information is available at
Read Gaen Murprhee’s appreciation of the First Folio by clicking here.

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