Theater & art

Art review

An up-close view of Shakespeare’s First Folio

The title page with an engraving of Shakespeare from Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623).

Folger Shakespeare Library

The title page with an engraving of Shakespeare from Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623).

MANCHESTER, N.H. — There are just 234 surviving copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio. The existence of the 234th, in Scotland, was revealed last week.

A First Folio is on display at the Currier Art Museum, through May 1. It’s there as part of a First Folio! tour, arranged by the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C. The Folger owns 82 First Folios. The tour is bringing a copy to each of the 50 states and Puerto Rico. As part of the tour, a First Folio is currently on display at Brown University, also through May 1. Another will be at Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum May 9-31.

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Closer to home, a First Folio (not part of the tour) is among the 80 items in “Shakespeare: His Collected Works,” which runs through April 30 at the Harvard Theatre Collection, in Houghton Library, in Cambridge’s Harvard Yard.

Both tour and Harvard show mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, in 1616. The reason the First Folio is so important is that its publication, in 1623, brought to 36 the number of Shakespeare plays that had been published. Eighteen had previously not appeared in print, including “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth,” “As You Like It,” and “The Tempest.” Without the First Folio, we might not have them today. True, Caliban might approve — but we’d have no idea who Caliban was, would we?

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The display at the Currier is so simple an unaware visitor might overlook it. The First Folio sits in a translucent display case, opened to pp. 264-5, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. That’s the page every First Folio on the tour is open to. If you’d like to see other pages, Oxford University’s Bodleian Library has an online version of its First Folio.


Nearby are several overdesigned walls panels, courtesy of the Folger. The panels offer photos of actors both famous and not so much, performing Shakespeare (surely, they could have done better than Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet) and text that’s alternately PR-ish and informative (the original print run was 750 copies, each going for a pound, or about $200 today).

Drawing on its own library, the Currier has mounted a charming companion show to the First Folio display. “Shakespeare’s Potions” runs through June 26. It consists of 10 herbals, books about plants and their uses. They range in date from a 1558 Venetian printed book to a 1977 pamphlet.

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Plant-derived potions play a significant role in several Shakespeare plays, including “Romeo and Juliet” (unhappily), “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (comically), and “Macbeth” (spookily). Illustrative film stills and lobby cards hang on the walls. Is that Judi Dench, as Titania, in the legendary Peter Hall version of “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? Yes, it is. And is that . . . Jughead, of Archie fame? Him, too: He shares a comic-book cover with the witches from “Macbeth.” Double, double toil and cultural allusion. That Will Shakespeare, you never know where he’ll turn up next.

FIRST FOLIO! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare

SHAKESPEARE’S POTIONS

At Currier Art Museum, 150 Ash St., Manchester, N.H., through May 1 and June 26, respectively. 603-669-6144, www.currier.org

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of surviving Shakespeare First Folios.

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