By Seth Daniel
One of the most famous lines in William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ actually didn’t even exist in the first version of the play, which was much different than what modern readers of the Bard might know.
It’s a fact that’s verifiable through materials at the Boston Public Library (BPL), but very few are aware those rare materials even exist – let alone in their public library.
That and many more amazing and rare collections of Shakespeare materials will be on display in a once-of-a-lifetime exhibition coming to the BPL this October – an exhibition that the BPL is already preparing for and has been for the last two years.
“We all know the line, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’” said Jay Moschella, curator of rare books at the BPL. “But that’s not what it is in the First Edition, which will be on display. In the First Edition it is, ‘To be or not to be, aye, there’s the point.’ The play is also half the length as the ‘Hamlet’ we know. The characters have different roles and the story is different. You can tell it’s the same play, but it’s still a bit of an open question.”
Few know it, but the BPL houses one of the most important collections of Shakespeare materials, and it has never before been brought out to the public. From Oct. 13, 2016 to March 31, 2017 that will all change as the collection in its entirety will be presented as ‘Shakespeare Unauthorized’ on the first floor in the McKim Room.
This year, 2016, marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and BPL will honor the Bard’s lasting legacy with the exhibition, as well as programming at library locations citywide. BPL holds one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Shakespeare in a public institution, including the first four folios of his collected works, 45 early quarto editions of individual plays, and thousands of volumes of early source material, commentaries, translations, manuscripts, and more.
“It’s exciting because this is ours and we’re bringing it out,” said Beth Prindle, head of Special Collections. “We are flaunting our wares this year in a wonderful way. It’s great to see these items have their moment to shine…It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime event. We’ve never had an exhibition of this scale.”
Added Moschella, “If you’re a scholar and know a lot about Shakespeare, you will see things here you haven’t seen before. You also don’t have to be able to quote lines of Shakespeare or know the plays to see interesting things. You will be able to see things here you won’t be able to see anywhere else in the world… There will be something for everybody.”
Chimed in Prindle, “We take the ‘Free To All’ motto seriously and try to be mindful of that in our programs…People are from as near as our down the street neighbors to a worldwide audience. This is an incredible collection to have here and that it’s held by the citizens of Boston is very important.”
Shakespeare Unauthorized will contain far more than just books of plays: this exhibition will feature surprising rarities and mysterious objects; scandalous forgeries made by con men and accomplished scholars; books from the luxurious private libraries of early English aristocrats; and memorabilia from four centuries of acting and stagecraft.
Some of the plays, however, include a First Edition of ‘Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,’ something few have ever seen.
“Again, you’re not going to see this on display in the United States and not really anyplace else,” said Moschella.
Other highlights will be early pamphlets of Shakespeare known as quartos. While many associate Shakespeare with fine literature now, that wasn’t always the case.
“This was not an exalted art form,” said Moschella. “They were around in tiny pamphlets. They were inexpensive and had no cover. Nobody saved them. As a result, very, very few of these exist, but we will have 45 of them on display.”
In addition, that First Edition of ‘Hamlet’ will also be on display to delight readers of the well-known play. Moschella said the First Edition wasn’t even known to exist until 1823.
“It wasn’t discovered until the 19th Century,” he said. “For a couple hundred years, people were reading the Second Edition of ‘Hamlet’ It is a really different play. It’s not anything like the version we might have read for the first time in junior high.”
The story of how the collection ended up in a public institution like the BPL is also interesting, especially since it could have ended up at the University of Pennsylvania if they had pursued it.
“This collection actually belonged to Thomas Pennant Barton,” said Moschella. “He was a major collector throughout the 19th Century. When he died, he wanted his Shakespeare collection to go to an institution and his widow allowed the BPL to pay an extremely generous low price for it. It arrived here in 1873 and it’s been here every since. It’s been here for quite a long time and it’s very fortunate because no one could put together this collection now. It couldn’t be done. The books are too rare and too valuable now.”
Shakespeare Unauthorized is made possible through the financial support of Iron Mountain Incorporated, a leader in storage and information management services. Based in Boston, Iron Mountain provides charitable grants of funding and in-kind services to cultural and historical preservation projects like Shakespeare Unauthorized all over the world through its Living Legacy Initiative.