Somewhere in the high desert, traveling toward Boise, inside a specially constructed case, accompanied by a personal courier, sits a book. It’s 393 years old, 630 pages long, and on the open market it’s worth more than $5 million.
It contains only words, yet what words it contains.
“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”
Juliet, “Romeo and Juliet”
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“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Jacques, “All’s Well That Ends Well”
“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, rounded with a little sleep.”
Prospero, “The Tempest”
While William Shakespeare was alive, his plays existed only in actors’ memories, in handwritten scripts, and as quartos, single-play pamphlets that were often discarded or fell apart. Half of his plays had never been printed at all. But after he died in 1616, a couple of his fellow actors decided to assemble thirty-six of his scripts and publish them with more style: in a collated and sturdy “folio.”
The 750 folios they managed to produce sold for about a pound each — $200 in today’s money. Today, almost four centuries later, 235 of those so-called First Folios survive, and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., owns 82 of them. This summer they’re sending one to every state in the Union, including Idaho.
Which means that sometime before Saturday, Aug. 20, under a veil of secrecy that Shakespeare himself would have admired, a courier is going to arrive in Boise, carry one of those folios into Boise State University’s Arts and Humanities Institute Gallery in the Yanke Family Research Center on ParkCenter Boulevard, let it acclimatize and open it to the page in Act III of “Hamlet” where a suicidal Hamlet debates if it’d be better “to be or not to be.”
And then you can go see it for free.
It is not overstatement to say that if you miss seeing this, you’ll miss seeing one of the most important artifacts in Western civilization. Without the First Folio we wouldn’t have “Macbeth,” “Julius Caesar,” “Twelfth Night,” “The Tempest” or “Antony and Cleopatra.” We wouldn’t have the words softhearted or lackluster or equivocal or fashionable, or hundreds of the other terms Shakespeare made up.
History, remember, is mostly a story of erasures. Homer wrote an epic poem before “The Iliad” called “Margites,” but no copies survive. Sophocles wrote 120 plays; only seven still exist. Melville wrote a novel or a story (we’re not sure which) called “Isle of the Cross” and sent his only copy to a publisher who promptly lost it. Some of Hemingway’s work didn’t even survive that long: A suitcase containing the draft of a novel was lost in a train station never to be seen again.
If Shakespeare’s plays had been lost, the entire shape of Western storytelling would be different. Could Keats have been Keats if he hadn’t read Shakespeare? Would Dickens have been Dickens? Would Hollywood be Hollywood? Would the actor John Wilkes Booth, deeply affected by his appearances in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” have shot Abraham Lincoln? Would Nelson Mandela, who shared a mass-produced edition of Shakespeare with his fellow political prisoners at Robben Island, each signing their name by a favorite passage, have inspired so many?
No one knows how many souls were involved in protecting the particular First Folio that’s coming to Idaho as it rattled down the pegboard of time. The book is older than George Washington, older than Napoleon, older than Isaac Newton. It has survived plagues, fires, freezes, the Revolutionary War, the blitz of London, the threat of nuclear annihilation and the ravages of moisture and mold.
To set your eyes on it is not only to celebrate Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death (and during the 40th season of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival) but also to celebrate the tens of thousands of humans who have sheltered, protected and reanimated books through the centuries.
What you can see for four weeks at the Yanke Family Research Center Saturday, Aug. 20, to Wednesday, Sept. 21, is not just the first First Folio to come to Idaho. You can see a testament to the staying power of stories, the closest thing to immortality many of us will ever glimpse.
Boise author Tony Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel “All The Light We Cannot See” (Scribner).
See Shakespeare’s First Folio
10 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and Labor Day (Monday, Sept. 5), Saturday, Aug. 20, to Wednesday, Sept. 21, Boise State University’s Arts and Humanities Institute Gallery, Yanke Family Research Center, 220 ParkCenter Blvd., Boise. Free.
Schedule of First Folio events in Boise
Events are free and at the Yanke Family Research Center, 220 ParkCenter Blvd., unless otherwise noted.
▪ Wednesday, Aug. 17, 6-8:30 p.m.: Film screening of the 1955 “Richard III,” starring Lawrence Olivier, Boise Public Library, main branch, 715 S. Capitol Blvd.
▪ Saturday, Aug. 20, 1-5 p.m.: First Folio Grand Opening Carnival and Ribbon Cutting with Folger Shakespeare Library Librarian Daniel DeSimone, plus outdoor festival with performances, demonstrations and activities.
▪ Tuesday, Aug. 23, 7 p.m.: Idaho Shakespeare Festival founding Artistic Director Doug Copsey and other founding company members will share their story of the festival’s roots.
▪ Wednesday, Aug. 24, 7 p.m.: Idaho Scholar Talks: “Ha Ha Hamlet: Parodies, Pop-Culture and the Prince of Denmark” by Boise State University associate professor Matt Hansen.
▪ Thursday, Aug. 25, 9-11 p.m.: Film screening of “10 Things I Hate About You,” the 1999 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” outdoors at the BSU Student Union Building Intramural Field (on campus). Bring a lawn chair.
▪ Friday, Aug. 26, 7 p.m.: Idaho Scholar Talks: “Mind Your F’s and Q’s!: Exploring Early Editions of Romeo and Juliet” by Idaho State University English professor Jessica Winston.
▪ Saturday, Aug. 27, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.: Boise Public Library Comic Con at the main branch will feature a display of Shakespeare-related graphic novels.
▪ Monday, Aug. 29, 7 p.m.: Film screening of 1996 “Romeo + Juliet,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, with an introduction by BSU Theatre Chair and ISF company member Richard Klautsch at The Flicks, 646 Fulton St., Boise ($7 at the box office).
▪ Thursday, Sept. 1, 7 p.m.: First Folio keynote speech by University of Nevada professor and author Eric Rasmussen about his part in the discovery of the Saint-Omer First Folio, an event that went viral.
▪ Thursday, Sept. 1, 6:30-8 p.m.: First Thursday at the Boise Public Library’s main branch will features some First Folio events.
▪ Friday, Sept. 2, 10:30 a.m., and Saturday, Sept. 3, 2 p.m.: “To Bee or Not To Bee” puppet show at Boise Public Library’s main branch.
▪ Tuesday, Sept. 6, 13, and 20, 10 a.m.-noon: “Shakespeare’s World” by BSU history professor Lisa McClain for Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning. Registration required at ExtendedStudies.BoiseState.edu/osher.
▪ Friday, Sept. 9, 7 p.m.: Idaho Scholar Talks: “The Economy of Nature: Human and Non-Human Forces in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Timon of Athens,” by Lewis-Clark State College assistant professor Peter Remien.
▪ Monday, Sept. 12, 7 p.m.: Idaho Scholar Talks: “All the World’s A Stage Direction: Shakespeare’s First Folio for Actors” by BSU theater professor Gordon Reinhart.
▪ Wednesday, Sept. 14, 6- 8:30 p.m.: Film screening: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” 1935, staring James Cagney, Dick Powell and Olivia de Havilland. Boise Public Library, main branch.
▪ Friday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m.: Idaho Scholar Talks: “Shakespeare’s Typeface: Fonts from the First Folio to the 21st Century,” Idaho State University professor Curtis Whittaker.
▪ Saturday, Sept. 17, 1-5 p.m.: First Folio Family Day with performances, activities, including Matt Hansen’s “Shake It Up After School,” a performance by sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
▪ Wednesday, Sept. 21, 7 p.m.: “Our Revels Now Are Ended” wrap-up of the Folio events that includes a panel discussion about how the folio came to Boise and a performance of Idaho Dance Theatre’s “Friends and Lovers,” performed to spoken Shakespearean text and poetry.