Inside the Milberg Gallery: In the Company of Good Books - Shakespeare and the First Folio

The following is the first in a series of inside looks at the current exhibition in Princeton University Library’s Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library - “In the Company of Good Books: Shakespeare to Morrison.” 

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 celebrates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s “First Folio” and showcases Princeton’s diverse collection of English literature and many of the writers and readers who brought life to English literature around the world. 

Shakespeare First Folio title page with black & white portrait "Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies

William Shakespeare (1564-1616). “Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies.” London: Isaac Iaggard and Edward Blount, 1623. William H. Scheide, Class of 1936.

Four hundred years after its publication, the First Folio remains our primary witness to the authentic works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). When the playwright died at age 52, versions of only 19 of his individual plays, two substantial poems, and a single volume of sonnets had been published, all in handy quarto format. In 1623, the scattered texts of 36 plays, recently available in quarto or lingering in now-lost handwritten drafts or copies, were gathered by his friends into a folio edition “published according to the true original copies.” Eighteen newly published plays, including “Macbeth,” “The Tempest,” “Twelfth Night,” “Julius Caesar,” and “The Winter’s Tale,” otherwise would have been lost to posterity.

Reflecting upon the enduring legacy of the First Folio and other Shakespearean editions, including Princeton’s earliest Shakespeare quarto (1598) and the “Poems” of 1640, this section of the exhibition looks back on playwright and poet Ben Jonson’s (1572-1637) connection to the actor/playwright and explores different ways in which readers of subsequent centuries have engaged with their personal “Shakespeares.”

The First Folio was the first book of its kind: a folio publication devoted exclusively to plays. On the title page, Shakespeare takes center stage by means of a large engraved portrait that faces Ben Jonson’s laudatory verses “to the reader.” Devised by members of Shakespeare’s company, this bold gesture affirmed that the late playwright (a man of modest standing in Elizabethan society) was worthy of enduring readership and memory.


The exhibition is open through December 10, 2023 at the Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library. Please visit the website to view the gallery’s opening hours and for information about public tours, related programming, and how to visit.

Discover more through the companion digital exhibition.

Published October 3, 2023.

Media Contact: Stephanie Oster, Library Publicity Manager