November 8th, 2023 is the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, and JCLS is ready to celebrate! Some of us have had the date on our calendar for quite some time, but I can respect that others might have different priorities. So for those whose response to the Folio’s 400th Birthday is a shrug, let me tell you why I find it so exciting. 

William Shakespeare, author of about 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and a handful of longer poems, wrote amazingly engaging stories. Whether he was writing a comedy, tragedy, or history play, his masterful use of language and ability to make his audience care deeply about his characters have made his plays endure when the works of other Renaissance playwrights have faded from memory. Shakespeare’s works are beautiful and absurd, often in the same play, and teach us lesson after lesson on what it means to be human – loving, striving, brave, flawed, and human. 

Beyond that, Shakespeare had a lasting impact on the development of the English language. His plays introduced 1,700 new words, and the popularity of his published works had a significant effect on the standardization of English spelling and grammar. He probably didn’t invent all those words, but he had a keen ear for language and incorporated the spoken language of his place and time into his written works, likely becoming the first to document their use. Many of these are words we now use all the time: “gloomy,” “suspicious,” “majestic,” and “eventful,” among others. It isn’t just single words, either. If you’ve ever said, “fight fire with fire,” “in a pickle,” or “vanish into thin air,” for example, you’re quoting Shakespeare. His turns of phrase have made their way into our daily speech so thoroughly that most of the time we don’t even know it. 

Now to the First Folio, and why it is such a big deal. When Shakespeare died in 1616, fewer than half his plays had been published. In 1623, a group of Shakespeare’s friends and fans got together and raised funds to publish a fine, large book of his collected works, many of which had been performed to acclaim but had never been published before. The First Folio, as it is called, includes most of his plays, though not his poetry. We’ve got a facsimile edition in the Reference collection at our Ashland Branch if you’d like to take a look at it. Much has been written about the significance of this publication, but the long story, short, is that if that group of people 400 years ago hadn’t collected and printed those plays when they did, many of his best-known works would not have survived. There would be no Macbeth, no The Tempest, no Twelfth Night, no As You Like It, no Julius Caesar. Many works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries were never printed and distributed in this way, and all we have left are their names and a few details if we’re lucky. The publication of the First Folio had a tremendous impact on language, literature, theater, and culture. Locally, of course, it matters to our corner of the world, since production of Shakespeare’s works is such an important part of Ashland’s story. 

Institutions all over the world are celebrating the 400th anniversary, and we wanted to get in on the fun. Over the next month, you can come to the Ashland Branch of JCLS to participate in free programs celebrating Shakespeare. From scholarly to participatory, formal to very casual, we’ve got something for everyone, though most of our programs are intended for ages 16 and older. Here’s the lineup: 

  • November 8th-30th: Shakespearean Insults to Go  
    • We’ve chosen some of the Bard’s most creative and pithy insults. Feel like a chuckle? Stop by to pick up a literary insult and take it with you.  
  • Tuesday, November 14th at 4pm: Barry Kraft Explores the First Folio 
    • Well-respected local scholar and performer Barry Kraft will give a talk on the significance of the First Folio.  
  • Thursday, November 16th at 3pm: Make Your Own Commedia Dell’arte Mask 
    • Commedia was a popular form of theater across Renaissance Europe, and the character types of this form influenced Shakespeare’s characterizations. This hands-on program is for ages 16 and up and is available while supplies last.  
  • Sunday, November 19th at 3pm: Speak the Speech: Shakespeare Open Mic 
    • This is a chance for Shakespeare lovers to share their favorite monologue, sonnet, or scene with a group of fellow fans.  Listeners are also welcome! Bring your family!
  • Tuesday, November 28th at 4pm: What Show is This? Evolving Approaches to Designing Shakespeare   
    • Tara Houston, OSF’s Cultural and Community Liaison, will give a talk about how staging Shakespeare has changed with the times, reflecting the tastes and priorities of the time in which a production is produced. 
  • Thursday, November 30th at 3pm: Music of Shakespeare’s Time   
    • Performers from local Early Music ensemble Musica Matrix will perform Renaissance music on recorder and viola da gamba.  

If you can’t make it to Ashland but want to get into the spirit of the celebration, there is also a Beanstack challenge, encouraging participants to read Shakespeare retellings this month. Here’s a list of titles to get you started. 

If your curiosity has been whetted and you’d like to learn more about early publications of Shakespeare’s works (we haven’t even touched on the pre-folio quarto publications) I suggest starting at Folio 400, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. If your travels take you up to Portland this year, you might stop by Portland State University, which is hosting exhibits, a speaker series, and performances over the coming months. 

Wherever you are, we invite you to take some time this month to appreciate the power of language, great storytelling, and Shakespeare. Hooray for the First Folio, hooray for the Bard of Avon, and hooray for the creative people who keep finding new ways to find enduring truths in old stories.