Campus News

Noted Shakespeare scholar discusses importance of First Folio

Shakespeare’s First Folio, which includes plays such as “Macbeth,” “Julius Caesar,” “As You Like It,” “Twelfth Night” and “The Tempest,” is "one of the most important books in the world,” says UB English professor Barbara Bono.

By BERT GAMBINI

Published March 21, 2016

“We would not have half of Shakespeare’s plays if it weren’t for the First Folio … It’s one of the most important books in the world.”
Barbara Bono, associate professor
Department of English

Emma Smith, a professor of Shakespeare studies at Hertford College, Oxford, and one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare’s First Folio, opens the UB Humanities Institute conference “Object and Adaptation: The Worlds of Shakespeare and Cervantes” with two talks on March 28.

Smith will discuss the cultural, historical and literary significance of the First Folio with the lecture “From the Barbican to Buffalo: Why Shakespeare’s First Folio Matters.” She will speak first at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library’s Central branch, 1 Lafayette Square in downtown Buffalo at noon and then deliver the same lecture at 3:30 p.m. in 107 Capen Hall, North Campus.

The visit — presented by the Humanities Institute, the Office of the Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education, and numerous other unit sponsors — is part of the year-long public humanities collaboration, Bvffalo Bard 2016, 400 Years since Shakespeare, commemorating Shakespeare’s life and work with performances, tours and exhibits.

“We would not have half of Shakespeare’s plays if it weren’t for the First Folio,” says Barbara Bono, associate professor in the Department of English and UB’s representative to the Folger Institute, the scholarly branch of the Folger Shakespeare Library. “That includes plays such as ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Julius Caesar,’ ‘As You Like It,’ ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘The Tempest.’

“It’s one of the most important books in the world,” she says.

And Buffalo owns two of them, each housed in the special collections of the institutions where Smith will be delivering her lectures — and each will be on display during that time.

A number of Shakespeare’s plays — but not all of them — were published during his lifetime in quarto editions, four-folded pamphlets that provided eight book pages for text. But plays in this period were written for performance. If they were published at all it was an afterthought, according to Bono.

But the English playwright and poet Ben Jonson disagreed with the ephemeral nature of the genre. He led the way by publishing his own plays in a folio in 1616.

Bono says that established the precedent and two members of Shakespeare’s company published the Shakespeare folio in 1623, seven years after the Bard’s death.

“What would the literary tradition be like without the First Folio?” asks Bono. “What would our knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare be like if that book had not been published?

“That’s why the book is so valuable,” she says. “But it’s also in a certain way priceless as an artifact of literary history.”

Knowing it was a big year for Shakespeare programming and that the Folger was sending out 18 its First Folios on tour around the United States, Bono spoke with librarians where Buffalo’s copies are held.

“I saw this as an opportunity to showcase some of the riches in Buffalo at a moment of renaissance for the city,” she says. “It’s a chance to talk about our treasures, including the rare book treasures that form the core of whole collections of rare books at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library and the University Libraries.”

As the celebration unfolds locally, the Folger, which owns 82 of the 233 extant First Folios, is presenting a traveling exhibit that will bring copies of the book to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

“The Folger is using the First Folio tour to do more expansive programming, but I’d like to flatter myself that we’re doing as much in Buffalo as anywhere else,” says Bono. “We have the goods and we have the cooperation of cultural agencies and educational institutions and the right scale of community.”

Bono highlights the K-12 Shakespeare birthday celebrations on April 23; “Shakespeare Comes to the 716,” which for seven years has presented a performance program for at-risk kids; and the several local high schools producing Shakespeare plays. And this summer “Shakespeare in Delaware Park,” the nation’s second-largest free Shakespeare festival, will celebrate its 41st season on a brand-new stage.

“On the academic end, the Shakespeareans I have coming are without a doubt among the best in the world,” Bono says. “There are 13 coming during the course of the year that are extremely noteworthy. The full schedule is on our website.

“This all begins with the treasure of the First Folios and the community-wide effort that’s going into this celebration,” she says. “These are not just rare books; they are living, breathing artifacts and a driver of cultural literacy.

“It’s a good moment.”