Two weekends ago I had the opportunity to do something very special. As many of you literary types know, this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Yes, it’s odd to host a celebration centered around someone’s death. But, I’m not in charge. I just get to reap the benefits of the celebration.
In honor of this momentous occasion, The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. decided to share some of their rarest and possibly some of the most valuable books in the entire world with the rest of the United States. The book I speak of is Shakespeare’s First Folio. This is a text that was put together and printed 6-8 years or so after his death by his friends. In it are 36 plays penned by the English bard. For 18 of them—like Macbeth and Twelfth Night—this was the first time they had ever appeared in print. If these plays hadn’t been printed here, they may have been lost forever because they had only been presented on the stage. Cities across the county competed for the honor and one city in each state was selected display one of these rare texts. Lucky for me, Kansas City, specifically the Kansas City Public Library, was selected as the host city for the state of Missouri in an event titled Show Me Shakespeare (Missouri is the Show Me state if you didn’t know).
In the weeks leading up to the June 6 opening of the display, I decided to host my birthday celebration around the book. I invited my friends to come out to brunch and visit the library to see the book. We went to Chez Elle, a crepe restaurant. If you ever are in KC, you should definitely stop by! It’s delicious. Anyway, after a decadent brunch with mimosas, we headed to the library.
Seeing the book was a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. This book has never been cheap. One of the displays informed us that when the first edition was printed, it was sold for 1 pound which equaled $250 at the time! Today, these first editions are worth millions! Not only that, but it is not often that you get to see something so rare, old and in such pristine shape! The book was beautiful and was fittingly open to one of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare: Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” speech. Reading those words on a page that old was a glimpse into the experience of someone from that time period. For one moment, we shared that language, the image of that speech as it was acted on stage, the experience of Shakespeare. Sure editions of Shakespeare plays I’ve read have likely been doctored and edited. But there is purity in that speech.
Seeing Shakespeare’s First Folio and being close enough that I could touch it (if it weren’t for the alarmed case of course) was a truly wonderful experience for an aspiring writer and a self-declared literary nerd such as myself. I thought a lot about how much Shakespeare has affected literature and the English language and even today he continues to do so despite having passed away 400 years ago. Our language holds such beauty and potential and he was expertly skilled when it came to showing us this. I know the world seems to continue to turn away from the humanities, but I couldn’t imagine being human without them and seeing Shakespeare’s First Folio reminded me of all the things I am and aspire to be. Fittingly, my Shakespeare fortune was a quote from Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” The drawing of these words from the basket was a bit uncanny considering all the things going on in my life right now. Ah, Shakespeare. Live in!