Over the years, I’ve seen a manuscript of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, hand-corrected copies of Oscar Wilde’s wildly popular plays, and an illuminated Magna Carta. But nothing quite prepared me for seeing Shakespeare’s First Folio. Published in 1623, the massive volume contains 36 plays and weighs nearly five pounds.
The copy I saw at the New York Historical society (on display through July 17) is one of 18 traveling copies loaned by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. in honor of the 400th anniversary of the Immortal Bard’s death. The Folger, which owns a total of 82
First Folios — housed it in a custom-built protective display case.
What a thrill to star-gaze at the huge volume elegantly clothed in bright red leather stamped with gold! The Folio — the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays — is open to the page on which these words are printed:
“To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream…”
Why open the Folio to Hamlet’s famous soliloquy? “That decision was fought over for a very long time,” notes Folger coordinator Maribeth Cote. “In the end, it’s the most iconic speech. Even if you’ve never heard of Shakespeare, somehow you know that phrase.”
How entrancing and inspiring it is to think that these words have traveled across time and space to touch people all over the world with their universal magic. What better incentive than this do we all need to write on?