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Shakespeare First Folio at Elizabethtown College

Written by The Associated Press | Nov 9, 2016 1:18 PM

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All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts.


These lines by William Shakespeare are of course among the most famous in all literature. But this speech from As You Like It -and many others - might well have been lost to later generations if it weren't for the unlikely publication of one very special book. It's a book known today as the First Folio.

Of the 36 Shakespeare plays it contains, a full 18 of them do not exist in any previous form. Many of those are major works.

Roughly 700 copies of the First Folio  were printed when it was published in 1623, and around 200 copies are still extant. One of them is on display in High Library at Elizabethtown College through December 4th.

Dr.  Michael Swanson is director of theater and dance at Elizabethtown College. As he points out, without the First Folio, "we would not know Macbeth. We would not know Julius Caesar. We would not have 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen'. We would not have Twelfth Night, we would not have the first Henry the IV play in which we meet Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare's great clown."

Other major plays which would have been lost include the popular Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest.


It's hard to calculate the impact the lack of this body of work would have had on literature. The First Folio is considered by many to be the most influential secular book ever published.

Its publication was unusual. Shakespeare had published some poetry, but had never attempted to have his plays published. At the time, plays were considered merely popular entertainment, not literature.

Josh Cohen, instructional and outreach Librarian at the college, compares it to sitting down and reading a TV script today. It was just not something that people did.

But seven years after Shakespeare's death, two of his friends and acting colleagues brought together copies of the plays and published them as the First Folio. It was as Josh says, "the first time a book of nothing but plays had been published."

The exhibit is part of a national tour organized by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, which owns 82 of the existing copies of the First Folio. Copies are on loan throughout the United States in honor of 400 years since Shakespeare's death. Elizabethtown College is the only Folio host in Pennsylvania.

There will be a number of different events presented in conjunction with the exhibit over the next month. Performances, lectures, children's events, student artwork inspired by Shakespeare, and a film festival will all be part of the celebration.

Dr. Michael Swanson is directing a group of students in events called "pop-up Shakespeare", which will present seven scenes from plays that are only found in the First Folio, with one exception. "That exception," he explains, "is the monologue from Hamlet, "to be or not to be". The reason is that's what the book is going to be opened to at every state across the country displaying this."

Swanson is also coordinating a faculty reading of passages from Shakespeare. A full list of the events can be found online.

Along with the original edition of the book in its case, a digital version and a facsimile will be available for a more in-depth perusal. 

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