“The First Folio: Shakespeare for All Time?” is on view in Hanke Gallery through Feb. 11

  • Woman in black sweater stands with back to camera, looking at a glass case displaying three open books. The book at far right shows image of William Shakespeare
December 5, 2023

The 17th-century playwright Ben Jonson wrote the dedicatory preface to William Shakespeare’s First Folio (addressing the author, by then six years deceased): “Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe, / And art alive still, while thy Book doth live.”

Shakespeare’s book—the first collected edition of his plays—does still live, even today, 400 years after its publication.

In celebration of the quadricentennial, curator Eve Houghton’s exhibition “The First Folio: Shakespeare for All Time?” explores the long, rich, and often controversial history of the famous book.

Houghton’s exhibition poses this question to the viewer: “Why do we, centuries later, care about this book?” One reason is that 18 of Shakespeare’s plays appear only in the First Folio. Without this collection, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest would have never been known to us.

A second reason, Houghton says, is “because Shakespeare matters to us, and this book made Shakespeare matter.” Because of this anthology—a rare format in the period—Shakespeare grew in reputation and popularity. The First Folio elevated a prolific Elizabethan playwright to a “timeless figure in English literature” whose works have endured.

The exhibition includes, of course, a copy of the 900-page First Folio. This 1623 volume is from the rare-book collection of the Elizabethan Club of Yale University, one of the finest private collections of Elizabethan literature in the country. Also on display are many related titles from that collection. Alexander Smith Cochran, BA 1896, inspired by the Shakespeare lectures he attended while a student at Yale, founded the Elizabethan Club in 1911 with the gift of a house, an endowment, and his own collection of books from the period.

Although the quartos, half-sheets, sammelbands, and catalogs on display provide historical context for the First Folio, they also tell a larger story—about early modern printing, 20th-century bibliographers, and rare-book collectors today.

“The First Folio: Shakespeare for All Time?” is on view in the Hanke Gallery in the nave of Sterling Memorial Library through Sun., Feb. 11.

View the more than 900 pages of the Elizabethan Club’s copy of the First Folio in Yale Library’s digital collection.

Read more about the exhibition in YaleNews. Watch curator Eve Houghton’s overview of the exhibition and her Mondays at Beinecke discussion with Basie Gitlin, president of the Elizabethan Club.

Learn more about the Elizabethan Club of Yale University.

—Deborah Cannarella

Photo by Judy Sirota Rosenthal