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Shakespeare's First Folio set to visit UM


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The First Folio (Photo courtesy of The Folger Shakespeare Library)

Break the ice. Foregone conclusion. Wild-goose chase. Forever and a day. Dead as a doornail. Laughing stock. Love is blind. For goodness’ sake.

These phrases are a part of our everyday vernacular. We use them in conversations, write them in e-mails, hear them sung in our favorite songs, or spoken by our favorite actors. Heck, there are probably even emojis out there to represent some of them.

But did you realize when you speak those words, you’re actually quoting William Shakespeare?  

As good luck would have it—borrowed from The Merry Wives of Windsor—a rare opportunity to see the actual book where these phrases first appeared is coming to the University of Montana in May. 

First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, on national tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library, celebrates Shakespeare and the 400th anniversary of his death. The exhibit travels to just one location in all fifty states, and the stop in Montana is at UM.

“Missoula really is the cultural capital of Montana,” says Julie Biando Edwards, an associate professor at the Mansfield Library. “This is a community that loves literature, loves music, loves museums, loves libraries. So having this exhibit here just further cements that reputation.”

The First Folio is the first complete collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623, seven years after his death. Compiled by two of Shakespeare’s friends and acting colleagues, it preserves thirty-six plays. Without it, we would not have eighteen previously unpublished masterpieces, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and Antony and Cleopatra.

The Folger holds eighty-two copies of the First Folio—the largest collection in the world with more than a third of the 233 known copies. It is believed that 750 copies originally were printed. A finished First Folio cost about £1 in 1623, which today would be roughly $150. In 2001, a copy sold at auction for $6.1 million. The Folger, in partnership with the Cincinnati Museum Center and the American Library Association, is coordinating the First Folio exhibition.

During summer 2014, Edwards began the rigorous application process to bring the First Folio to UM. In her mind’s eye—borrowed from Hamlet—the exhibit would be inside the Mansfield Library. But when questions were posed about security and environmental requirements, she quickly realized she needed some help.

Enter the Montana Museum of Art & Culture at UM.

“We have the right security, the right climate control, and the wherewithal to show it,” says Barbara Koostra, director of MMAC. “Julie’s energy was infectious, so becoming partners in this project was delightful.”

The partnership paid off, and UM was awarded the exhibit.

The show, which runs May 9-31, will be in the Meloy Gallery inside the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center. The artifact will be set up at one end in a specially designed case, and it will be opened to the page of Hamlet containing the famous phrase, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” A series of panels will display interesting facts about Shakespeare and the First Folio. Admission is free, and the MMAC will expand its hours to accommodate the exhibit.

The show itself is exciting, but the events surrounding it are incredible, and they are designed to reach all ages. 

“The First Folio is the root of the Shakespearian tree,” Koostra says. “The programming is so extensive, you’ll just have to ask yourself, ‘How deep do you want to go?’”

For example, UM’s School of Theatre & Dance will extend its run of Romeo and Juliet to coincide with the exhibit. And every seventh-grader in Missoula County Public Schools will visit campus, see a scene from the play, and then see the First Folio. 

“It’s one thing to read Romeo and Juliet at school,” Edwards says, “but to actually see it acted out, and then see the original book it came from, that makes a significant impact.”

The Missoula Children’s Theatre will stage The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged], and many other community and campus partners are working together on events and programming surrounding the First Folio.

“This is an amazing way to bring an artifact to Missoula that many people wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to see,” Edwards says. “Shakespeare has had such a profound influence on the Western literary tradition. This exhibit will speak to people in many ways.”

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