The Book’s the Thing: Shakespeare From Stage to Page opens at the Palace of the Governors
In Act 2 of Hamlet, the enduringly complex title character declares, “The play’s the thing.” Using reason bound up i n tortured personal psychology, Hamlet is sure he’ll see his uncle Claudius’ guilty reaction while he watches a play about the murder of a king, thus proving to himself once and for all that Claudius killed his father. The line, often uttered out of context, has over the centuries become a rallying cry for the importance of theater in our lives and the singular influence of its author, William Shakespeare.
In a new exhibit at the Palace Print Shop and Bindery at the Palace of the Governors, The Book’s the Thing: Shakespeare From Stage to Page, this legacy is turned on its head, the written word trumping the spoken. “Even though I fully acknowledge and appreciate that Shakespeare is best on stage, without printing, chances are those plays wouldn’t have survived,” said Tom Leech, curator of the print shop and the exhibit, which opens Friday, Feb. 5. The Book’s the Thing, held in conjunction with the New Mexico Museum of Art’s First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, is located in a recently rehabilitated room off the courtyard near the print shop.
Leech told Pasatiempo that about half of Shakespeare’s work was printed during the playwright’s lifetime. “And some of it was pirated badly. There was probably someone in the audience of the play taking notes that they then took to a printer, so it bore little resemblance to the play as Shakespeare would have written it.” His complete works were gathered together for the first time in 1623, seven years after his death, in what is known as Shakespeare’s First Folio, copies of which are now touring museums across the United States. Of the origi 750, about 230 remain, and each is essentially u ue.
“To call it ‘ Shakespe ’s’ First Folio is almost a misnomer,” Leech s d. “He never saw it, and the way they printed bac then, they made corrections as they were going, but they would still bind everything, so there’s a wide range of interpretations.” Contemporary collected editions of Shakespeare are actually “kind of a generalized agreement about what Shakespeare actually wrote. I’m sure there’s no end to the argumentation among Shakespeare scholars.”
In the multipart exhibit, Leech and printer James Bourland hold public printing demonstrations of a page from the First Folio on a replica of a Gutenberg wooden hand press, the same kind used in 1623. They are hand-setting the type for Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy on the nature of being. “And to the extent that it’s practical for visitors to print on their own, we’ll have them do that,” Leech said.
Other Shakespeare-inspired printed material will be on display, from the ridiculous to the sublime, to show Shakespeare’s broad influence on culture. Items include vintage prints of Shakespearean imagery, The Klingon Hamlet — a translation of Hamlet into a language invented for the TV show Star Trek, by Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader — and labels from Shakespeare Cigars. Several New Mexico artists have created artist books with Shakespearean themes ranging from the theatricality of a lit stage to his characters’ travel routes.
The final element of the exhibit is a collection of hand-marbled paper with lines from Shakespeare plays
written out calligraphically. The paper is made by Leech, and the calligraphy is by Patricia Musick, whom Leech has known for many years, since he had a papermaking studio in a theater in Colorado Springs. The two used to collaborate on such projects each year for the theater’s annual Shakespeare production. The Book’s the Thing was the perfect opportunity to revisit the series. “It’s going to be a fun exhibit with plenty to look at,” Leech said. “So much has been written and printed about Shakespeare. It’s mind-boggling that so many people have devoted their entire lives to studying him. He’s the only writer with his own Dewey Decimal number.” ◀