At Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., access to the Bard's First Folio — the first printed collection of his plays — is gained through a vault door so heavy two security guards must budge it.
The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University boasts no such door. But the prestige of presenting one of literature's rarest volumes is not lost on the museum, which will display the First Folio Feb. 1-28 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.
There's much ado about the folio's visit to the Frost — the only venue in Florida to feature the collection — as the museum mounts a monthlong slate of festivals, plays and even a Shakespeare-meets-hip-hop open mike to celebrate the book.
"This is the book that gave us Shakespeare," says James Sutton, chairman of FIU's Department of English. "Without it, generations of schoolchildren and people would have never heard of 'Macbeth,' 'The Tempest' or 'Julius Caesar.'"
Sutton says he lobbied to have the Frost host the artifact, after the Folger Shakespeare Library said it wanted a "museum-quality space" to tour its collection of First Folios in all 50 U.S. states. Printed in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, by two of the playwright's theater pals, the 923-page folio weighs about 7 pounds and is printed on vellum, and carries all 36 of Shakespeare's plays, including 18 that had been previously unpublished. John Heminge and Henry Condell were fellow English actors who printed 700 folios of the book as a way to erect "living monuments to their departed friend," Sutton says.
"They basically said, 'Our friend has been dead for seven years, and if we don't do something about it, these 18 plays will be lost,'" Sutton says.
When visitors see the folio housed under a protective glass case — flipped open to Act III, Scene 1 of "Hamlet," where the Danish prince delivers his famous "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy — Sutton says they can look, but not touch. (Visitors can leaf through nearby facsimiles of the folio instead). ) The room, guarded by a phalanx of docents and security guards, will also be temperature-controlled, with Shakespeare quotes scrawled in red across educational panels depicting London's Globe Theatre. Mounted TVs will screen clips from film adaptations of "Hamlet."
"We wanted there to be a full-bodied experience for what the significance of the first folio is," Sutton says. "Anyone who cares about his ideas and thoughts and his beauty of language will love this book."
The Frost is programming several Shakespeare-themed events to mark the folio's Miami visit, including an Elizabethan food festival on FIU's Biscayne Bay campus on Feb. 10; a Feb. 17-27 performance of "As You Like It"; Miami City Ballet's performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; a performance by the Improvised Shakespeare Company; and a Folio Family Day on Feb. 20.
A strong highlight is the I-CAVE, a virtual reality simulation that re-creates London circa 1598 inside FIU's nearby Engineering and Computer Science building. Describing the experience as a "[role-playing game] meets the Holodeck in 'Star Trek,'" game designer David Frisch says players step inside a hexagonal pit with a video-game controller and virtual-reality glasses. From there, visitors can "stroll" around Elizabethan-era London and visit the Globe Theatre, where an actor will recite the opening monologue to "Henry V."
"There's this huge misconception that Shakespeare's plays were delivered very stoically in the theater," says Frisch, an English graduate student. "In reality, it was wild, it was rowdy, and you stood in a hectic, crowded theater as actors shouted their lines. That's what I wanted to re-create. It's going to be really freaking cool."
"First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare" will be on view Feb. 1-28 at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, 10975 SW 17th St., in Miami. First Folio at FIU, the lineup of Shakespeare-themed programs, will run Feb. 1-28. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Call 305-348-2993 or go to Folio.FIU.edu.