Shakespeare’s first folio comes to UConn

The Benton Museum of Art will feature William Shakespeare's First Folio as part of a 50 state tour. (Amar Batra/Daily Campus)

Upon entry to The Benton Museum Gallery one is met by a small unassuming glass case in the center of the room containing a rather old looking book, its pages sepia with age. When approached, the museum staff concisely says not to touch the case and to allow for a full half of a foot between the case and yourself, for inside the case is a book older than The Declaration of Independence.

The text is none other than a copy of The First Folio of William Shakespeare and its presence drew more than 100 students, faculty and community members for the opening of The Benton’s newest exhibit “First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare,” Thursday evening.

Shakespeare’s first folio comes to The Benton Museum at the University of Connecticut as part of its 50 state tour. Unlike other states, this will the only appearance of the text in Connecticut. This tour runs in honor of the 400th anniversary since The Bard’s death in 1616 and comes from The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.

The Folger houses one-third of the remaining copies of The First Folio. Seven-hundred-and-fifty copies were printed in totality, but as it stands only 233 remain and The Folger has 82 of them. For the tour of the 50 states, 18 copies of the first folio have been lent out by The Folger. At any given time across the country, 6 copies are on display, with 12 in reserve.  This sort of piecemeal disbursement of the folios is undoubtedly a measure to preserve the archaic texts from damage.

To kick off the reception the Dean of the School of Fine Arts, Anne D’Alleva, School of Fine Arts Alumni, Forest McClendon, Provost Mun Choy, Dr. Brendan Kane, associate professor of history and the assistant director of public humanities and Dr. Owen Williams from The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, all delivered speeches.  Their words took to reflect the occasion of the exhibit and its importance to not just the University of Connecticut community, but its continued importance to culture.

“The words in that folio are not static, they change with the times,” said Provost Mun Choy in his speech. Following the provost, Dr. Kane said, “A great university needs great humanities.”

This book may be the most important book in theatre, literature and history, a kind of crown jewel if you will. It contains a total of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, some of which were not published until after his death.  In fact, if these plays, 18 to be exact, weren’t added after his death, they very well may not have been known or discovered.  Of those 18 are the plays “Macbeth,” Twelfth Night,” “Julius Caeser” and “The Winter’s Tale” to name a few.

“I think the interesting thing about this [the first folio] is that we tend to think about the questions and challenges that face us [human beings] as being issues of just the day, their contemporary issues. One of the things Shakespeare demonstrates is the long history of some of these questions and to deal with them. Love and loss, war and power, history and state building, literature and business- all these kinds of questions we focus so much on the present day and yet the folio reminds us that these are universal,” said Dr. Kane.

When asked what the folios presence at the UConn represents for theatre, the newly appointed Artistic Director of Connecticut Repertory Theatre, Michael Bradford, said “In the department of dramatic arts we live in the world of Shakespeare. As a playwright, everything written is a reaction to his works.  Shakespeare’s work is one of the most important collections, and at the University of Connecticut we continue to be at the top of our field as a division one research institution.  This book and its presence here reflects that.”

Given the same question in terms of what the folio represents for English, professor of English Gregory Semenza said, “This is a book that emphasized Shakespeare’s importance and his arrival as a literary figure and not just a professional man of the stage.”

“I couldn’t imagine working on a Shakespeare without the first folio- it taught me action. For us [UConn] to act as hosts opens the doors to global exchange. I am honored to have it in our home,” said Forest McClendon, an actor who recently portrayed the namesake roles of “Othello” and “Julius Caesar,” in London and an alumni of the school of fine arts

While the centerpiece of the exhibit is the book, there are also several pieces of costuming on display utilized in recent performances of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at the Hartford Stage Company in 2014, designed by Fabio Toblini, and the specific pieces on display built by John Cowles, Barry Wayne Sellars and Sarah Beth Parks.

Shakespeare’s importance continues to draw crowds, this being clearly demonstrated as the turn out for this exhibition opening numbered more than 100 guests, brought together by one man who died hundreds of years earlier. Given this crowd, one student, Jacob Ulreich, a seventh semester senior majoring in the design and technical theatre program said “Even though I am not a big fan of Shakespeare, as a student of theatre and major history fan I can still recognize and appreciate the massive impact the first folio has on literature.”

The Benton Museum exhibit is open now until September 25. Hours are Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday through Sunday 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Mondays


Matthew Gilbert is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.gilbert@uconn.edu.