UC Irvine Celebrates 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio’ With Exhibit

Opening May 4 with a special reception, the exhibit allows the public to view the ’First Folio’ along with many other rare and unique books.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s “First Folio,” UC Irvine Libraries presents an exhibit, running through December, featuring its own copy. “It is the book,” says curator Derek Quezada. “When people think about a book that’s special or expensive, it’s either the Gutenberg Bible, Audubon’s ‘Birds of America,’ or Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio,’ which is the definitive book that captures all his plays. Without the printing of the ‘First Folio,’ we wouldn’t know his works.”

Year the “First Folio” was published

Copies that are currently known to survive

$9.9 million
Auction price of a “First Folio” sold in 2020—a record for a work of literature 

Year UCI alum Patrick Hanratty donated his copy to the school 

Wine stain left by a previous owner, possibly in a fit of laughter, in middle of “Twelfth Night”


How is the “First Folio” responsible for us knowing Shakespeare’s works?

Because up until that point, only a handful of his plays were published. And even those plays that were published, some were pirated, some were transcribed incorrectly. You have things called quartos, which are essentially small little books that usually had one individual play. “Hamlet” might have been published 20 years before the “First Folio,” but a lot of the famous lines aren’t what we would recognize, like the “to be or not to be” speech. It says, “To be or not to be, ay, there’s the point.” You know, it doesn’t have the same sort of gravitas. These things are refined over time. 

How did the publishing of the “First Folio” influence the culture of the time?

Shakespeare is such a hugely influential person, both on literature but also language. A lot of the words that we have, were words that Shakespeare either created or popularized. A lot of it was kind of informal language of the time that made its way through his literature and then became formalized and standardized. like when we talk about having “green eyes” as being envious, that’s something that comes from Shakespeare. “My own flesh and blood” comes from Shakespeare. So many common words and phrases that we have come from Shakespeare.

Conversely, how did the culture and literature that came before Shakespeare influence him?

The big thing about Shakespeare is that he was like a conduit for all of popular culture at that time. Shakespeare was reading new literature and plays and the rediscovery of classical works and digesting them and synthesizing them into his own work. I found a whole bunch of books in UC Irvine’s Special Collections that actually influenced Shakespeare’s works. There’s one in the exhibit called “La Diane de Georges de Montemayor” and essentially Shakespeare cribbed part of the plot for “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” from this Portuguese writer’s novel. And he kind of changed the characters’ names and made it fit an English audience.

What else can people expect in this exhibit?

We’ll have a whole bunch of incredibly unique books that never get brought out in this kind of way, especially in Orange County. You’re gonna have about 50 to 60 rare, unique books, each one beautiful, expensive, with its own incredible story behind it. They’re all from the UCI collection. Usually, in previous UCI exhibits, there would be mockups or photographs that would be printed and put on display But it’s all going to be just the actual physical books themselves. No mockups or anything like that. The earliest book we have in the collection is from 1530. 

On opening night, we’re going to bring out the “First Folio,” which will be on display so people get a chance to see it. I and a Shakespeare expert (University of Nevada, Reno professor) Eric Rasmussen are going to be there talking about it. One thing I hope people will take away from the exhibit is that the past is not so alien. It’s not so foreign. It’s not so strange as one might think.

Do you have to handle the “First Folio” with gloves?

The white glove treatment that you see at auctions is more of a performance. You can actually tear the pages if you wear gloves because you can’t feel the paper as well or they’ll catch on the edge of a page. 

I think an important thing about the “First Folio” is the tactile, physical nature of it. There’s this aura about it and I think that if you actually get a chance to smell it and feel it, it transmits something. It kind of brings you back in time in a way that you couldn’t just see in a digitized copy.

Each copy of the “First Folio” is imbued with the history of the people who have handled it. And it’s not always a bad thing. A highlight from the exhibit is that there’ll be photographs of some of these features of past owners–the kind of stains, annotations, revisions, preservation interventions that happen over 400 years. One of my favorites is a wine stain. So right in the middle of a comedy, “The Twelfth Night,” there’s a line that probably made this person laugh. They were probably standing over the book and hit a funny line. They have their glass of wine that’s hovering above and they laugh and they spill it and it hits the page and you can clearly see where they went to go wipe the wine off and it creates this long smudge across the page. There are also these greasy finger stains, probably from someone eating mutton or lamb or something like that. But you’ve got these big greasy fingermarks. You also have little details like a bullseye where there someone is annotating a passage that really speaks to them.

Why is UC Irvine so open with having people see the “First Folio” in person?

The person who donated it, Patrick Hanratty, wanted that to be the case. He was a computer science major at UCI and he made his fortune basically inventing CAD, which is computer-assisted design. He was a big Shakespeare fan. He wanted a copy of the “First Folio” and he bought it for around a quarter of a million dollars, which was pretty expensive at the time, though not nearly as expensive as what it could go for now, which is probably like $9 million. He bought it from Heritage Book Shop in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. And he kept it locked away. But he realized he wanted people to have the same kind of joy that he experienced when he first bought it. So he donated his copy to UCI in 1986.


Find out more: lib.uci.edu/exhibits/exhibit-400-years-shakespeares-first-folio