The Bard Comes to Kentucky

Shakespeare First Folio, 1623. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare First Folio, 1623. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Whenever one thinks of an English class, they likely recall the first time they studied William Shakespeare. The study of the Bard has become synonymous with the studies of literature and theater themselves. His work has achieved such a sustained relevance that the fact that 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of his death can be met with short-lived incredulity.

To honor the occasion and celebrate the legacy Shakespeare has imparted upon the modern arts and humanities, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities and Google have partnered to begin a bold initiative that will bring an original collection of Shakespeare’s complete works – referred academically as the First Folio – to one site in each of the 50 states.

There was an extensive application process in order for organizations to receive the book, and it was a joint application from the Frazier History Museum, the University of Louisville and the Louisville Free Public Library that snagged the spot for Kentucky.

Jodi Lewis, the Frazier’s director of public programs, and Andrew Rabin, a professor of English at UofL partnered with a third collaborator in Paul Burns of the Louisville Free Public Library in order to strengthen their application, which was accepted from a pool of over 100 other candidates. “What the Folger and NEH required from the applicants was that the application had to come from multiple organizations so that no single organization could claim ownership over the document,” explains Rabin.

In addition, applicants were required to involve extensive community outreach in the plans detailed in their applications, and in this case, Kentucky’s hosting of the First Folio will see the collaboration of some 50 community partners, making it one of the largest initiatives in Louisville city history.

In fact, the endeavor which will culminate with the First Folio’s arrival at the Frazier in less than two weeks began in earnest in April of this year. Called “Will in the Ville,” the initiative began with Kentucky Shakespeare’s parks tour, continued with its regular summer season and featured performances and scholarly displays such as a Shakespeare & Art exhibit at UofL and a Shakespeare in Kentucky exhibit at the Louisville Free Public Library’s main branch, which began in October and will continue through December. Other collaborators participating in the city-wide celebration are Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Bard’s Town, Bellarmine University, CenterStage, Commonwealth Theatre Center, JCPS, Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, Louisville Ballet, the Louisville Improvisers, Louisville Orchestra, Muhammad Ali Center, Savage Rose Theatre Company, the Speed Art Museum and so many more.

“They wanted to see how elaborate and creative we could get, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” says Rabin.

All of these organizations have converged to celebrate what truly is a singular moment in the history of theater and the written word. “The First Folio is, without question, one of the most important books ever printed,” states Rabin. He goes on to say that without the First Folio, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays would likely not have survived. These include some of his most prominent plays such as “The Tempest,” “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth” – plays that are considered foundational to the Shakespeare canon.

“Also, the First Folio is the second ever complete works of an author that had ever been printed,” adds Rabin. “It was over 900 pages. This was not a cheap book. This was a prestige volume, and when Shakespeare was alive, authors and playwrights were considered marginal figures. The idea today that we think of authorship as being of importance, that we award a Nobel Prize in literature, has a lot to do with Shakespeare, and the First Folio is a testament to that.”

When patrons at the Frazier walk into the exhibit, they will see the book opened to the famous “To be or not to be” monologue from “Hamlet.” It’s a work that may be considered pedestrian today, but at the time, it was revolutionary for the work of a playwright to be highly sought after and featured prominently in the homes of the upper class.

Perhaps there is only one way to illustrate how much unheard of the cost for binding Shakespeare’s works together was. “In the currency of the time, it was a few pounds, but that translates today to about $500,” says Rabin. Despite this initial price, Shakespeare has found his way into every corner of the world and translated into nearly every language, and we should all celebrate where our civilization has been able to go because of him. VT

“First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare” will be at the Frazier History Museum (829 W. Main St.) from November 10 to December 10. The Frazier is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, visit fraziermuseum.org or call 502.753.5663.