A rare original copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio—the first complete collected edition of his plays and one of the world’s most influential books—will be on view at the Middlebury College Museum of Art for the month of February. The exhibit, First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library marks the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. Along with the month-long exhibition, the College will host performances, a workshop, speakers, a film screening, family events, and a folio festival that features Renaissance music, gallery talks, and a live theater performance. Middlebury collaborated with several community partners, including the Ilsley Library and the Town Hall Theater, to offer a number of the activities.

Title Page of the First Folio
Title page with Martin Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare, Shakespeare First Folio, 1623. Folger Shakespeare Library.

“It is because of this book that Shakespeare is known as the most famous author in the English language,” said Middlebury Director of Special Collections Rebekah Irwin, who organized the events associated with the exhibit.

Timothy Billings, Middlebury College professor of English, offered several reasons for Shakespeare’s enduring fame and popularity. “The stories are wonderful and the language is fascinating,” he said. “They’re sometimes moving and sometimes truly hilarious, and there are passages that take your breath away. The real secret to his longevity, I think, is that they are so varied that everyone finds something to love about them.”

The First Folio includes 36 Shakespeare plays. Eighteen of them, including Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night, would probably have been lost without the creation of the First Folio. Compiled by two of Shakespeare’s friends and fellow theater colleagues, it was published in 1623–seven years after his death in 1616. Just 233 copies of the First Folio survive today, 82 of which are in the Folger collection in Washington, D.C.

The Folger will send out a total of 18 First Folios across the country. Some of them will make multiple stops so that every U.S. state will host a First Folio at some point during the tour. Middlebury College will serve as the host site for Vermont, and is among the first 10 sites where the First Folio will be on display. The exhibit locations include 23 museums, 20 universities, five public libraries, three historical societies, and a theater. The complete list of host sites and tour dates is available on the Folger’s website.

The First Folio will be opened to the most quoted line from Shakespeare, “to be or not to be” from Hamlet. Accompanying the book will be a six-panel exhibition exploring Shakespeare’s impact, then and now, along with interactive, digital activities.

Highlights of the associated events at the College include a keynote talk on February 7 titled “Shakespeare in America” by James Shapiro, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Shapiro will explore how Shakespeare’s works have served as a prism through which Americans have experienced major historical events and issues, from revolution to social justice. The talk is co-sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council.

On February 18, the First Folio Festival, which will be held in the Museum of Art and the lower lobby of the Mahaney Center for the Arts, will feature The Mountain Ayres, Middlebury College’s coed student a cappella group dedicated to the appreciation of Renaissance music. The Middlebury Actors Workshop will perform Straight Up Shakespeare, an energetic, fast-paced romp through the playwright’s most famous scenes and sonnets. Renaissance refreshments, instrumental music, children’s activities, and Shakespeare selfies will also add to the festival atmosphere.

For a full calendar of events associated with the First Folio! exhibit, visit middlebury.edu/shakespeare.

First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library, is a national travelling exhibition organized by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, to commemorate the 400th anniversary in 2016 of Shakespeare’s death. It is produced in association with the American Library Association and Cincinnati Museum Center. First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, and by the generous support of Google.org and Vinton and Sigrid Cerf. At Middlebury it is sponsored by the Friends of the Art Museum.