Shakespeare: First Folio at Portland Public Library

I’m much more interested in watching a Shakespeare play than reading one. I think it’s a lot of fun to read Shakespeare to prepare for being in a Shakespeare play – learning lines, stage directions, etc. However, the need for such preparation doesn’t seem likely for me in the near  future, so I will continue to happily sit in my theater seat watching Shakespeare’s plays – especially Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, The Tempest, and Hamlet.

I know some who share my sentiments, some who can’t stand even the thought of Shakespeare’s poetically connotative name, and many more who can’t stand the thought of people not enjoying reading his work. Regardless of my aforementioned sentiments, it was with brio that I waltzed into the Portland Public Library in search for the Lewis Gallery so I could lay my eyes on the masterful First Folio, containing William Shakespeare’s work.


If you don’t know anything about folios, don’t worry. If you’ve ever taken a piece of paper and folded it in half, you understand what a folio is. One fold, four pages (two front and back), and the largest paper size for a book to be printed on, which varies as the size of printing paper used in previous time periods was not standardized; folios can now range from 15″ to 50″, although 15″ is the most common.

Okay, so thanks for that great lesson on paper but what’s the big deal about Shakespeare’s First Folio?

The First Folio was a [postmortem] tribute compiled by Shakespeare’s friends, and many of Shakespeare’s most popular work wouldn’t exist now if it wasn’t for this book. About seven years after William Shakespeare died, some guys got together and decided: “Hey, our man Shakespeare entertained us for years with his plays, the world needs to be able to experience those plays until the end of time. Let’s print this book, the First Folio, and maybe about 400 years from now the Folger Shakespeare Library will bring it on tour around the country so as many people as possible can see it.”

That may or may not be a direct quote from somewhere,* but the basic information is definitely correct. Shakespeare died 400 years ago. Four hundred years ago. And we’re still talking about him/studying him/getting giddy over him after all this time. His friends knew what they were doing.

If you’re in Maine, visit the Portland Public Library – between now and April 2nd! – and see the First Folio. It’s kept in a room under the stairs, so you won’t see it right away as you walk down those stairs in the Lewis Gallery. It will be quite dim in the modest-bedroom-sized room, and you won’t be able to touch the book. You can’t even touch the glass case it arrived in and sits inside of, unless you want to trigger alarms and whatever 17th century magic is on the old, fragile pages. That’s the main reason I took this photo from a distance…


…until the library staff member/Folio guardian ushered me closer to get a better picture. I’ve never held my phone so daintily strong before; it was nerve-wracking, but luckily the dehumidifier was in full force so I didn’t sweat. But I did get a better picture. Oh, and if you do take pictures, make sure the flash is off on your camera. The room is dim because there is a strict limit on the number of lumens that can shine on the inside of the book (seriously, how cool/terrifying/astonishing is that?!) in order to prevent damage, and flashes of cameras exceed that limit tremendously.

Lastly, if it wasn’t for this First Folio, the world’s most popular Shakespeare play would have been lost forever. “To be, or not to be: that is the question” may not hold the same significance or identity as it now does without this and the other 233+ since published First Folio editions. But don’t worry, you can still check out Hamlet from your library, order it from a bookstore, and see it in one its most original forms on the First Folio tour.


Where will the First Folio be touring near you? Find out through the Folger Shakespeare Library’s First Folio Tour page.

*It’s definitely not a direct quote from anywhere


  • anhistorianabouttown

    I am curious to know if many people do prefer Shakespeare read vs watched- it would be an odd preference given that it is a script. I think that people get overwhelmed by the linguistic differences but if you have a chance to watch a performance and can just relax into it, most people do catch on fairly quickly… You are very lucky to have grabbed a picture, most exhibitions prohibit it. I’ve taken undergraduate and graduate courses in archival theory and practice and rare book preservation, and although I understand why pictures can’t be taken, it’s disappointing. I would have to say, my favourite manuscripts that I’ve seen in person would be the Magna Carta (1264), the Faddan More Psalter (~800), and the Book of Kells (~800)!

    • kmac14

      Wow, thank you for sharing! I would love to see the Magna Carta, and those courses sound amazing. The staff member (I can’t remember if he was a librarian) who brought me into the room where they kept the First Folio encouraged me to take pictures, so that made me quite happy. I viewed a copy of the Declaration of Independence in a town nearby and photos were not allowed – after learning more about the preservation that is behind making these items available for viewing, I understood, but was still disappointed.

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