SFU joins in celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio

November 15, 2023

For just a moment, imagine you’re living 400 years ago. You and a syndicate of publishers and printers decide to print the plays of William Shakespeare. The great playwright has been dead for seven years, but you are determined to overcome a series of significant obstacles to get his work down on paper. It’s an expensive undertaking, so money must be raised. Different plays are owned by different people, and they must be tracked down and obtained. Different versions of plays exist, so which ones will be published? Ultimately, though, in 1623 London 750 copies of the folio make it to print.

Fast forward 400 years and Shakespeare fans worldwide are celebrating the anniversary of this event. While about only 230 First Folios still exist, each one is a reminder that we wouldn’t have many of Shakespeare’s plays today without its publication. Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia are taking part in this worldwide celebration with a series of events at SFU’s Harbour Centre campus and the BMO Theatre Centre on November 17th and 18th.

On November 17th, the public can view UBC’s First Folio at Harbour Centre. This is one of only two First Folios in Canada. SFU English’s Professor Paul Budra, who first saw the folio when it was on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery, says it’s a good quality folio. In fact, it’s better quality than the other folio in Canada, held in the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

After the folio viewing, the public can attend a panel discussion, which Budra will be moderating. On the evening of the 18th, actors from Bard on the Beach will be performing a staged reading of Budra’s original play, The Very Book Indeed, which introduces the key historical figures in the story of how the First Folio came to be. For Budra, writing a play was a new challenge that he took on for this event.

“I had written for television back in the late ‘80s, but I’d never written a play, play,” says Budra. “I wrote a scene and sent it to our little collective of people, and they liked it. Dean Paul Gibson at Bard said, ‘I was laughing out loud when I read it,’ so I wrote the whole thing.”

Budra also enjoyed the collaborative experience of writing a play and getting feedback from people at Bard. The challenge was to make 17th century printing press techniques interesting.

“The idea was just to make it entertaining and communicate as much information as I could, and also work in snippets from some of the plays,” he says.

So, why 400 years later, do we still care about Shakespeare and his plays? For Budra, it’s because the Bard’s an amazing storyteller and poet, and it’s possible to reinvent him every time one of his plays is staged.

“Every time the director makes a decision, or an actor makes a decision, new possibilities open up,” says Budra. “No matter how many times I’ve seen Hamlet, every single time it’s different. Every single time something new jumps out at me. The sign of great art is that it never gets boring, there’s always another level to be discovered whether it’s music or visual arts or whatever and Shakespeare has it in spades.”