400 years of Shakespeare's First Folio celebrated in Germany

13 Oct

Even though the Frankfurt Book Fair in its modern form started in 1949, the German city's publishers' trade event actually has a tradition spanning more than five centuries.


Illustrating the fair's early importance, in 1622, the catalog of the Frankfurt Book Fair contained a very special announcement: The plays of a prominent British playwright would be published in print for the first time. His name: William Shakespeare.

This first official edition of his collected works, published under the title "Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies" has become known as the First Folio. For its 400th anniversary, the German Literary Archive Marbach is dedicating an exhibition to the book that would go on to make literary history. 

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Although William Shakespeare was already successful during his lifetime, it was only through the worldwide distribution of his works in print seven years after his death that he was to become a global literary legend. Before the publication of the First Folio in 1623, only individual plays had been published. 

Without the printed collection, large parts of Shakespeare's work may have been lost, among them such classics as "Macbeth," "Twelfth Night" and "The Taming of the Shrew." Today, these plays are still performed all over the world, making William Shakespeare one of the most successful authors of all times.

Shakespeare speaks eloquently on love, death and war

That is why Sandra Richter, director of the German Literary Archive in Marbach, refers to the First Folio as a "great feat of publishing" that contributed to creating the "image of a world-class poet," according the exhibition press release.

Sandra Richter is convinced that Shakespeare's works still have valuable lessons to offer, especially in times of great upheaval: "'Hell is empty, all the devils are here!' writes Shakespeare in his 'Tempest,' and that is how we read our present," she told DW in an email. "We are struggling with many superhuman challenges, and it is quite unclear how we can overcome them. One thing, however, is clear: that Shakespeare, with his insights into politics and society, is our contemporary."

What can be learned from Shakespeare

Discussing Shakespeare's enduring legacy, Gregory Doran of the UK's Royal Shakespeare Company quotes from "Macbeth" — one of the plays that would have been lost without the publication of the First Folio — as a source of hope. In the play, the world is described by the character of Ross as a place "where violent sorrow seems a modern ecstasy." 

"And yet he attempts to find cause for hope, wishing: 'Things at the worst will cease, or else climb upward to what they were before,'" Doran tells DW. Through its portrayal of a power-hungry dictator who brings nothing but war and violence to his realm, but who ultimately falls victim to his own greed for power and is overthrown, "Macbeth" remains a play that definitely remains relevant to this day.

The exhibition "Will’s Book – 400 Years of Shakespeare's First Folio" is on show at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach from October 12, 2022 to February 2, 2023.


Author Christine Lehnen

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