Shakespeare Scholar Eric Rasmussen Sets the Stage for First Folio Exhibit

Eric Rasmussen

Hundreds of visitors daily are making their way to the fifth floor of the Central Library to view a rare and valuable copy of Shakespeare's First Folio on display in the Missouri Valley Room.

Scholar Eric Rasmussen set the stage for the special, 23-day exhibit on Tuesday, June 7.

In an event marking the exhibit's opening a day earlier, the University of Nevada at Reno professor gave a delightful presentation that included a brief history of the First Folio and some of his personal experiences in working closely with more than 200 surviving copies of the 393-year-old book. As someone who has taken on the task of meticulously cataloging each copy, there is no one more qualified to speak about the Folio's impact.

He began by talking his audience through a range of subjects, speaking a bit about the print shop in which the First Folio likely was produced and describing the uniqueness of the text in the Folios as compared with earlier publications of his plays in smaller, quarto format. More notably, Rasmussen pointed out the differences among individual Folios. Each one contained 36 plays at the time that it was sold, but the evidence of what happened to the book from that point on is what makes the individual copies so special.

On the pages of many of these priceless books—alongside Shakespeare's words—are doodles made by children, the scribbles of mathematics, and even the paw prints of cats. Numerous Folios have signs of heavy use, with annotations jotted in the margins of every page. There are food stains on some and marks on others that call special attention to certain plays.

Given these details, it is hard not to be struck by the history that each book holds. From the moment each copy left the print shop, it began its own journey through the world, collecting evidence of owners and the others who interacted with it—people who evidently read Shakespeare in much the same way as we do today. In the marks and stains, we see what their favorite plays were, how they read them, and how they interpreted them. The texts, themselves, are incredibly important, and the First Folio has been essential to the preservation of Shakespeare's works. But these little bits of personality contribute to the book's value, providing an invaluable glance at society over time.

Rasmussen's choice to highlight these aspects of the First Folio lends emphasis to the book's importance and to how fortunate we are to have one in Kansas City. The Folio currently housed at the Library is one of 235 known to remain in existence, but it is as unique as you and I. You will not find, in any other copy, the same cover bound to the pages or the same notes on the pages of Hamlet. Each has its own story.

The First Folio remains on display at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., until June 28. More information on Rasmussen and his work with Shakespeare, check out his book The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios.

By Rebecca Adams, Library intern