March 29, 2023
April is an important month to the literary world. It is recognized as National Poetry Month and includes National Library Week (April 24-28) which gives us a lot to celebrate. Additionally, fans of literature also recognize the birthday of one of the world’s most famous and influential writers.
April 23 is known to be the date of William Shakespeare’s death, and it is also traditionally celebrated as his birthdate. In 2016, we celebrated 400 years since his passing, but this year marks 400 years since the publication of the First Folio in 1623.
Originally published as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, this collection has come to be known as the First Folio, as it was the first printed edition of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. The earliest record of a retail purchase was Dec. 5, 1623, and likely cost its buyer 15 English shillings for an unbound edition. A bound copy would have cost up to £1. Some estimate that you could have purchased 44 loaves of bread with that kind of money. It was believed that 750 copies of the First Folio were produced, and 235 are known to have survived. These copies are owned by libraries, universities, museums, and private individuals across the world. The closest copy to Muscatine is likely the copy held by the Newberry Library in Chicago.
So why celebrate Shakespeare? Why is literature published 400 years ago still worth celebrating? His craft is outstanding and impressive on its own. It demonstrates his mastery of the English language. Which is also why, linguistically, Shakespeare is the most important English writer to date. Because the Oxford English Dictionary records the first time a word appeared in a written work, over 1,700 words are attributed to Shakespeare with 422 of them being words and phrases he invented himself. This includes the words “rant” and “jaded” from Hamlet and Henry VI Part 1 as well as sayings like “wear my heart on my sleeve” which debuted in Othello and “wild-goose chase” used in Romeo and Juliet.
The stories themselves explore universal themes and morals, making their conflicts and resolutions relevant to the readers of today. His characters helped set him apart from his contemporaries because they are complex and three-dimensional. Macbeth is the villain of his play and yet even as he commits horrible acts, the reader is invested. Shakespeare challenged the limitations of drama and changed what could be accomplished on stage.
Above all, whether you enjoy reading or seeing Shakespeare or not, his work is relevant because of its place in our cultural literacy. Allusions to Shakespeare and his work endure through all forms of media. A musical version of Hamlet was staged in a 1966 episode of Gilligan’s Island, and the phrase “something wicked this way comes” from Macbeth has been used as album, song, and episode titles for decades. Teen comedies 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and She’s the Man (2006) are modern reinterpretations of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night.
So, how can you celebrate Shakespeare this year? There are so many ways we at the library can help! Come check out one of the plays which are in Adult Nonfiction; call numbers start at 822. Try listening to one! Shakespeare was meant to be read aloud, and we have books on CD. You can access audiobooks through the Libby App. And of course, you can always watch a Shakespearean drama whether it’s a faithful adaptation or a modern interpretation.