"What is Iambic Pentameter?"

Shakespeare There's always something inherently disappointing about book exhibitions or exhibitions of books. All the visitor can ever see are the two pages selected by the curator assuming they haven't decided the cover isn't the more interesting aspect of the artifact. With its utility lost, all we're left with is frustration as the point of its existence, to impart knowledge or entertainment become secondary to the fact of its existence in and of itself.

We want to pick them up and hold them, turn the pages, read them if possible and although in some cases the pages have been scanned and are available to be seen on some app or website, that's no substitute for the smell of an old book, the texture of the leifs.  Which is impossible because for the most part these are precious volumes too delicate to survive this behaviour and so they remain behind their glass display cases, sometimes illuminated by a spotlight, frozen like taxidermic animals.

Except today I visited an exhibition in which despite those frustrations, I wasn't disappointed and was more than slightly moved.  As part of the commemorations of Shakespeare's death.  Blackburn Museum has pulled together copies of the first four folios and are displaying them together in their manuscript room.  Despite having seen copies of all four volumes separately at some time, this felt like a pilgrimage I had to make.

The First Folio is on loan from nearby Stonyhurst College, bequeathed to them Lord Arundel a former pupil of the school.  This isn't the first First Folio they've owned.  As the BBC's reported, a copy found in a French archive during the preparation of an exhibition there was revealed to have been left there during a school trip back in the mid eighteenth century.  That book is featured in BBC Radio 3 documentary which visits Folios and considers their history.

The Second, Third and Fourth are in Blackburn Museum's own collection. Blackburn rope manufacturer Robert Edward Hart collected hundreds of ancient manuscripts which he gave to the museum in the mid-1940s for the enjoyment of the local public. The Hart Collection turned my head when I was last at Blackburn as part of the public art collection tour and even without the Shakespeare's displayed nearby, despite the frustrations listed above it is spectacular.

Seeing the four of them together is a remarkable experience, the publication history of the Folios in four glass boxes with the tops of the books pointing towards the middle.  The First (if you'll excuse the nicknames) is open on Martin Droeshout's portrait of Shakespeare and the title page, the second on Milton's epitaph, the third on the opening page of Pericles to highlight its addition in that volume and the Fourth on the title page proclaiming the inclusion of seven new plays.

Each is accompanied by an explanatory label.  The Third is especially rare because plenty of the original copies perished in the Great Fire of London.  There's also the matter of how that and the Fourth have the apocryphal additions all of which, with the exception of Pericles, do not show any sign of having been written by Shakespeare no matter what it says in big bold letters at the front (though given their attribution during his lifetime you can see why they'd be mistaken) (ish).

These Folios despite their posthumous publication, retain a certain awe, because of what they mean, relics of an earlier age, remarkable objects.  What I did notice is how similar they are despite there being fifty years between the First and Fourth.  The quality of printing and the page are roughly the same despite the gap between spanning the same chronological real estate as the whole history of Doctor Who.  We didn't even have home computers in 1963.

Near the beginning of my visit, the curator of the exhibition was attending to the display cases and was chatting to two older female visitors and because I genuinely didn't know, I asked her if she knew if the later folios were still sold as piles of pages by the bookseller to be bound by the purchaser themselves or if they were being hard bound by then.  She wasn't sure, but them the other visitors were intrigued as to where the question came from.  I explained.

Then, they wondered, did I know anything about Shakespeare's family which led to some consideration of whether Shakespeare's family originated in Lancashire.  I busked.  I didn't know.  But that led on to more questions about whether Shakespeare himself had visited the area and I led into the missing years and the possibility he was part of a touring company which led on to another question about iambic pentameter and then another and ...

In my element, the information flowing out of me, as the questions turned from facts to opinions.  What's your favourite play?  Do you agree with modern dress?  Do you think the Globe production of The Merchant of Venice should have the conversion scene added.  At one point I was explaining the origins of Hamlet's bad quarto, words, words, words, years of reading about Shakespeare becoming words, words, words.

It felt great and even though I'm really no expert, I had to look up Martin Droeshout's name before slotting it in above, there's something quite empowering (and I know that's not the right word but I'm a bit tired) about finding out that you're actually capable of talking about a subject within which you're interested and seemingly in a way which hopefully isn't boring.  "You should be here all the time" they said, "In case people have questions."

The Bard at Blackburn: A Unique Display of Shakespeare’s First Four Folios runs until 31st August. Admission Free.

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