Seattle Public Library is going to be the host for a Shakespeare First Folio, printed in 1623 and containing 36 plays. If the Folio had never been printed, we’d have lost the Bard’s plays forever. You have a chance to see it March 21-April 17.

Share story

Lit Life

It’s fair to say that the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library, which already accommodates 1.5 million visitors a year, is going to get a bump in business when a Shakespeare First Folio comes to town.

Seattle’s library is the designated Washington state host for a First Folio, one of 82 copies of a rare collection of Shakespeare’s plays owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Folger is putting its collection on tour this year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

This almost 400-year-old book will be on display in a gallery on the eighth floor of the downtown library, along with a Third Folio, a later edition in some ways more scarce than the First Folio (many copies of the Third Folio were destroyed in a London fire). The library can accommodate 14,000 First Folio visitors, who will each get up to 30 minutes to view the manuscripts and related materials in the gallery.


Shakespeare First Folio

This rare document will be on display 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, noon-6 p.m. Sundays, March 21-April 17 at Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Free tickets are required — for more information go to

Admission is free, but tickets are required. Chance Hunt, director of Community Partnerships and Government Relations for the library, says the folio will be on display during library hours from March 21 to April 17.

Why would people line up to see a First Folio? Here’s the background, according to the Folger:

When Shakespeare died in 1616, only about half his plays had ever been printed. They were published in small one-play editions called quartos (so named because each printed sheet is folded twice — in half, and then in half again — to produce four double-sided leaves, or eight pages). They were the paperbacks of their day; used, most eventually thrown away.

A folio, a larger book in which printed sheets are folded in half only once, were more expensive and far more prestigious than quartos (many of which were lost or thrown away). Each page is about a foot tall.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, a couple of actors from Shakespeare’s original troupe (Shakespeare was an actor as well as a playwright) published the First Folio. The 900-page volume grouped the plays for the first time into categories — comedies, histories, tragedies. The publishers included a portrait of Shakespeare that’s generally considered to be authentic.

University of Washington professor Jeffrey Knight says that from a monetary standpoint, a First Folio is “probably the second or third most valuable book in the world, behind the Gutenberg Bible.” Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen bought a copy of the First Folio for $6.1 million at Christie’s in New York in 2001, according to the Folger. In 2003, Oriel College, Oxford, decided to raise money by selling its First Folio to the late philanthropist Paul Getty for £3.5 million, according to British press reports.

As for its cultural significance, Knight said the First Folio is “the first book in the history of the English language to collect the works of a playwright. The first example we have of this relatively undignified form of drama — plays — being elevated to the status of literature.”

Most important for future generations, of the 36 plays included in the Folio, there were 18 that had never been printed before, including “Antony and Cleopatra,” “The Taming of the Shrew” and “The Winter’s Tale.” No original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays have survived — if the First Folio hadn’t been published, the plays would have been lost.

Scholars believe that about 750 copies of the First Folio were produced — of those, 233 survive. The Folger owns 82. Henry Folger, a president of Standard Oil and founder of the Folger library, was obsessed with collecting as many First Folios as possible, a key reason so many survive, Knight said.

Security will be tight, and details are not being discussed. The library is investing in two climate-controlled boxes, one for the First Folio, one for the Third Folio (loaned to the library by another private collection), constructed at a cost of $45,000. The library plans to reuse the boxes for future exhibits of rare manuscripts.

People who reserve a ticket for the First Folio will ascend to a gallery on the eighth floor of the downtown library, where up to 30 people per half-hour will be admitted to view both folios, information panels and other displays in the room. “I’m guessing people will spend 10 to 15 minutes,” Hunt said. “The Shakespeare pilgrims will want to stay longer. We are hoping we can keep it fluid.”

Another section on the third floor will feature related exhibits. Throughout March and April, the library plans related programming, including screenings of Shakespeare-themed movies, live actors in play excerpts, lectures by Shakespeare experts and other events. Items in the library gift shop will feature Shakespeare-related designs.

It’s impossible to know how many people will show, Hunt says, but almost 4,000 tickets have been reserved, with the first two weekends nearly sold out. Want to see a direct link to Shakespeare in all its antique glory? Book now.