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

originally published: 08/30/2023

Princeton University Library commemorates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare

(PRINCETON, NJ) -- 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: From 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 TempestTwelfth NightJulius 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.

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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 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 10:00am and 6:00pm on weekdays and from 11:00am to 6:00pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

For more information about the exhibition and related programming, please visit:

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TOP PHOTO: (Left) Francis Cugat (1893–1981). “Celestial Eyes.” Original dust jacket design for The Great Gatsby. Gouache on board, ca. 1925. Charles Scribner III, Class of 1973. Princeton University Library. On display in the exhibition is the original artwork, “Celestial Eyes” by Francis Cugat. Fitzgerald still favored the title Trimalchio when Francis Cugat provided artwork that would become the most celebrated dust jacket of the century. On November 14, 1925, Maxwell Perkins wrote to Fitzgerald: “But if you do not change, you will have to leave that note [Trimalchio] off the wrap. Its presence would injure it too much; – and good as the wrap always seemed, it now seems a masterpiece for this book.”

(Right) William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. London: Isaac Iaggard and Edward Blount, 1623.The family of William Augustus White, LLD. Hon. 1926. 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.



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