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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Univ Archives houses rare Shakespeare works

Published: October 18, 2013
Section: News

The library at Brandeis houses a collection of rare Shakespeare works. Since 1961, the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections has counted books of Shakespeare’s plays that were printed in the 17th century among its acquisitions. In addition, the collection has a number of later anthologies of Shakespeare poems, as well as contemporary facsimiles of the original publications. Earlier this week, Special Collections Librarian Anne Woodrum showed The Hoot some of the highlights of Brandeis’ Shakespeare collection.

Allan Bluestein, a member of an organization known as the Brandeis Bibliophiles, donated a copy of the First Folio to Brandeis, beginning a collection that the university has proudly maintained and expanded for half of a century. This book’s publication in 1623 serves as a milestone to Shakespeare scholars because it is considered to be the first reliable anthology of Shakespeare’s work. Although many of the 36 plays had been printed prior to 1623, these were done on the testimony of audience members who often made mistakes, as Shakespeare himself never wrote down his plays for sale in his lifetime. In contrast, the First Folio was written with the contribution of actual actors who had worked under Shakespeare.

In order to facilitate access and prevent deterioration, the First Folio has been fully digitized through the Perseus Project of Tufts University. However, any researcher who wishes to see the original document may do so in the reading room of the Archives & Special Collections. Although the Folio used to be bound like a normal book, the special collections staff removed the spine because of its harmful effect on the sheets. Therefore, this copy resembles a very carefully ordered pile of pages.

Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies Thomas King greatly appreciates the presence of the First Folio at Brandeis. In an email exchange earlier this week, he noted that the First Folio is “a kind of holy grail for those of us who love the materiality of Shakespeare’s texts and are interested in the history of editing Shakespeare plays.” King usually teaches only graduate courses in Shakespeare, though he taught Advanced Shakespeare to undergraduates last spring. He takes his students to see the collection because he believes that even professional Shakespeare scholars are incredibly privileged to be able to see this document.

The First Folio features a lengthy preface by the individuals who organized its publication, followed by a poem about Shakespeare by his contemporary Ben Jonson, who also wrote and acted in plays. The Folio also features a page listing the principal actors who originally took part in Shakespeare’s plays. A table of contents groups the plays by genres, separating the 36 plays into comedies, histories and tragedies.

From the same donor, Brandeis received a copy of the Second Folio, which came out nearly a decade later in 1632. In contrast with the First Folio, Brandeis’ copy of this collection is bound as a book. However, the binding is not original to the 1600s, instead likely to have been added in the 19th century. A handwritten table of contents just inside the front cover also seems to be a later addition. John Milton, best known for his epic poem “Paradise Lost,” first appeared in print when he published a poem about Shakespeare in a preface to the Second Folio, in a similar manner to Ben Johnson’s in 1623. This curiosity is partly what brings Professor William Flesch (ENG) to take his students to see the First and Second folios.

Although Brandeis has no copy of the 1663 Third Folio, there have been two donations of Fourth Folios. Published in 1685, the Fourth Folio contained several more plays that had been attributed to Shakespeare at the time. However, modern scholars disagree with the attribution, and only “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” has been added, even perhaps only in part, to the Shakespeare canon.

In addition to the original Folios, the Archives & Special Collections has acquired many other editions of Shakespeare. One is a 1951 facsimile of a 1603 quarto of “Hamlet.” While this was written 20 years before the First Folio, still during Shakespeare’s lifetime, its attribution to an audience member makes it a less reliable source. While the term “folio” refers to a book made of once folded sheets, two folds were needed for quartos, making for publications much smaller in size. Another of the library’s copies was compiled in 1968 from various copies of the First Folio with the aim of producing the most complete version possible. The library also has 18th century editions of Shakespeare: one compiled by Alexander Pope and one by Samuel Johnson.

These rare materials, when not being shown to visitors in the reading room, are kept in a secure, temperature-controlled, low-humidity environment. Leslie Reicher, the preservation officer at the archives, works to protect these documents from deterioration. But many publications, including those of Shakespeare and a variety of other historical documents ranging from American dime novels to Spanish Civil War posters to medieval European manuscripts, are all available for research at the University Archives. Anyone interested can go to the second level of the library and see what they have to offer.