Princeton University Library commemorates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio with a celebration of English literature

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Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery, Firestone Library

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Through March 2024 - "Once Upon New Times: Reimagining Children’s Classics" companion exhibition at Cotsen Children's Library

Gallery title wall "In the Company of Good Books" with wall image of Shakespeare and first folios in a display case

In honor of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623, Princeton University Library (PUL) presents “In the Company of Good Books: Shakespeare to Morrison,” in PUL’s Milberg Gallery. Curated by Jennifer Garcon, Librarian for Modern and Contemporary Special Collections, Gabriel Swift, Librarian for American Collections, and Eric White, Scheide Librarian & Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections, Rare Books & Manuscripts, the exhibition showcases Princeton’s diverse collection of English literature and many of the writers and readers who brought life to English literature around the world. 

The “Good Books” exhibition opens on September 6, 2023 and runs through December 10, 2023. Complementary thematic programming is being planned in collaboration with Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. Chesney Snow, lecturer in Theater, will conduct a performance of literature at the private opening reception for the exhibition. A reader’s theater, featuring renowned actors reading selected texts from the exhibition, and open to the public, is being planned for October. Additional programming such as panel discussions, gallery shows, and talks are being planned to take place throughout the fall.

Introducing the exhibition will be three original First Folios, the definitive source of many of Shakespeare’s dramatic works.

“We’re exhibiting three copies of William Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623,” said White. “This book remains the essential compilation of his authentic works. Seven years after his death in 1616, the scattered texts of 36 plays were gathered by his friends into a folio edition. If it had not been for this effort, 18 newly published plays, including Macbeth, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, and The Winter’s Tale, would have otherwise been lost to posterity.”

There will be a wide-ranging selection of writers’ working manuscripts; books annotated by authors, inscribed for friends, or collected by admirers; samples from authorial archives; publishers’ correspondence; novels read affordably as serials; portraits of writers and readers; and, original cover art.

Amongst these rarely seen treasures are a 1598 first edition of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour's Lost” and Toni Morrison’s handwritten manuscript drafts of “Desdemona.” Many works will be on display for the first time, including several recent acquisitions made by PUL.

 The Pool Players Seven at the Golden Shovel." Broadside.

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000). We Real Cool: The Pool Players Seven at the Golden Shovel. Broadside. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1966. Princeton University Library.

The exhibition gains contemporary relevance through the inclusion of 20th century authors, book owners, and publishers up to the lifetime of Ms. Morrison, including Maya Angelou, Sylvia Beach, George Lamming, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carlos Bolusan, Lorraine Hansberry, Chinua Achebe, and Virginia Woolf, amongst others. 

“During the 1920s, two independent publishing ventures played significant roles in the shaping of modern literature: Sylvia Beach’s Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, which emerged as a leading center for literary life, later establishing a publishing office; and, the Hogarth Press, established by Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard in 1917, which provided creative leverage for authors pursuing experimental literary projects,” said Garcon. “Both publishing enterprises took on significant risks, gave opportunities to nonconformist authors, resisted mainstream publishing norms, and prioritized literary excellence over monetary rewards.”

Bridging the 400-year period between Shakespeare and the 20th century writers and books, the exhibition spotlights diverse ways in which playwrights, poets, novelists, illustrators, publishers, and readers from the English-speaking world are drawn into conversation.

“Three great American poets from the nineteenth century represent the distinctive and contrasting roles writers played in relation to their printed works,” said Swift. “Walt Whitman participated in every aspect of the production and marketing of his poetry, reshaping and repackaging ‘Leaves of Grass’ through many editions. Frances Watkins Harper sold her inexpensive volumes individually as she toured the country as a lecturer, converting the proceeds into activism, while Emily Dickinson, too reticent to publish, bequeathed her poetic legacy to later editors to discover and excavate afresh.” 

Members of the public are welcome to visit the exhibition between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Check back for updated information on related programming and tours.

"Once Upon New Times: Reimagining Children's Classics," the companion exhibition in Cotsen Children's Library is open during Cotsen's regular hours through March 2024. 

Read more about the various sections of the exhibition through our "Inside the Milberg Gallery" series. 

Media contact: Stephanie Oster, Library Publicity Manager


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