Original editions of Shakespeare's First Folio are among the most valuable books in the world. Fewer than 750 were printed and only 235 survive today. One recently sold at auction for $6.2 million.
So when one of the original folios arrived at the Tweed Museum at the University of Minnesota Duluth last week, the five pound, 900-page book was handled very carefully.
"Literally you caress the pages," said the Tweed's preparator Anneliese Verhoeven, who helped remove the book from its crate and prepare it for display. During that process they discovered some of the pages were slightly crinkled.
"You sort of have to heat them up," she said, "and smooth them out, and just wait for the book to relax."
With such an old book, tiny details are critical, like fluctuations in humidity, how its weight rests, where the pages lay, she said. The whole process took a day and a half "to get one book in one case. It was fascinating, but very laborious."
Now the fruit of that labor is "First Folio! The Book that Gave us Shakespeare," as the exhibit is called. It's the first time any of the 82 First Folios in the vault of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington have gone on tour.
To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, the tour will visit one site in all 50 states, with Duluth the only stop in Minnesota.
The First Folio collected 36 of the Bard's plays, including 18 that at that point had never been published — plays like Macbeth and Julius Caesar.
So, what exactly is a folio?
It's basically a big, deluxe-sized book. At the time of Shakespeare, folios were usually reserved for bibles or important historical or scientific works.
In the Elizabethan era it was rare to print books this size, especially plays, which were written to be performed and seen, not read. In fact, Shakespeare himself never saw an edition of the First Folio, which was first published seven years after his death by two friends from his acting company.
Rather, Shakespeare's plays were usually printed as much smaller quartos, said Krista Twu, a professor of Medieval & Renaissance literature at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
"They were the books that the theater companies would use to prompt the actors, or the actors would use to prompt themselves, to learn their lines," she said.
There weren't any copyright laws at the time. So there was nothing to prevent a competing playhouse from stealing Shakespeare's plays and performing them — if they could get their hands on them.
One example is called the Nurse's Quarto of Romeo and Juliet. It's a version of the play filled with mistakes, except the Nurse's lines, which are perfect.
"It looks like somebody got the actor who played the nurse in a bar and got them drunk and had him recite the entire play and recorded it," said Twu. "But he really only knew his own lines."
As a result there were different versions of Shakespeare's plays in circulation. But the First Folio is what scholars think is the closest thing to what Shakespeare actually wrote.
Even today, actors rely on modern editions of the First Folio to prepare for productions, because of cues Shakespeare provided in the text.
"He has such rich text clues that are in the First Folio that modern editors will clean up for ease of reading," explained Chani Ninneman, producing artistic director of Duluth's Wise Fool Shakespeare Company.
Those clues, like intentional misspellings, can tell an actor how to emphasize specific words, Ninneman said.
Her company is performing Othello this month in Duluth — part of a wide variety of Shakespeare-themed programming planned to coincide with the First Folio exhibit.
There will be dance performances and art exhibits, even a screening of Shakespeare silent movies and Elizabethan-era art with live music by local Indie rock band Low.
"We're trying to recognize the timelessness of the artwork he created," said Matt Rosendahl, director of the Kathryn A. Martin Library at UMD.
"And I think that event brings it together maybe better than any, showing the artwork from 400 years ago, the artwork from 100 years ago, and the art from today," he said.
The First Folio exhibit runs through October 26 at the Tweed Museum on the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth.
The book will be open, in Duluth and at every other stop around the country, to the "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy from Hamlet. A worthy choice, said Twu.
After all, "it's possibly the most famous speech in the English language."