When English came to dominate the U.S. some 240 years ago, Shakespeare invaded every classroom in America.
“Which probably ended the perception of Shakespeare as a source of pleasure,” said a laughing Marissa Greenberg, a University of New Mexico associate professor of English.
Whether the Bard produces a cringe or a smile, fans of theater, poetry, film and drama can visit the source with the only state appearance of “First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare” at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe.
The exhibition of this original edition is on tour from the Washington, D.C.-based Folger Shakespeare Library in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
With partnership from the Cincinnati Museum Center and the American Library Association, an edition will tour all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. Visitors can use multi-panel exhibition and interactive activities to explore the author’s mammoth impact. The museum is celebrating the event with a slate of public programs and events with area Shakespeare-related groups.
In Santa Fe, the pages will open to one of the most quoted lines in the English language: “Hamlet’s” “to be or not to be.”
First published in 1623, the First Folio is the first printing of one of the most famous books in the world. Two actors who had worked with Shakespeare published it seven years after the author’s 1616 death. At the time, publishing was reserved for the Bible, sermons, historical and scientific works. Plays were considered low culture, their value strictly limited to entertainment.
Roughly 900 pages long, each page of the Folio is about a foot tall. All 18 plays appear for the first time in print. Between its covers lie Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet and Cordelia.
“As a material object, it is really impressive,” said Greenberg, the author of the essay “Rethinking ‘Local’ Shakespeare: The Case of ‘The Merchant of Santa Fe.'” Greenberg will participate in a panel discussion from 2-4 p.m. Feb. 20 and give a lecture on “The Very Large Shakespeare Array.” She also will speak on Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre at 5 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Albuquerque Main Library.
Shakespeare has been updated and adapted in a galaxy of stage and film versions. The adaptations range from the musicals “Kiss Me Kate” and “West Side Story” to the 1996 Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes California punk version of “Romeo + Juliet” to Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 samurai-meets-King-Lear film “Ran.” He’s been done in drag; Richard III has been a Nazi. “Macbeth” once worked for the Mafia.
Even 1999’s “Ten Things I Hate About You” starring Heath Ledger and Julia Styles lifted directly from “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Greenberg researched Ramón Flores and Lynn Butler’s “Merchant of Santa Fe,” which was written and performed in the early 1990s amidst a flurry of interest in New Mexico’s Crypto Jews, the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition.
Set in colonial New Spain before the Pueblo Revolt, the play incorporates a regional Spanish dialect and local history references to examine the community-building function of local theater.
“It’s very Shakespearian to think about issues and history beyond New Mexico’s borders,” Greenberg said. “It’s this recognition of a common humanity.”
No two of the six touring Folios is identical, due to printing differences and minor revisions, she added. Earlier versions feature additional stage directions for “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Entire scenes are sometimes missing from “King Lear.”
“It’s a lot less intimidating when students see Shakespeare revising just like writers do today,” Greenberg said.
Santa Fe boasts a Shakespeare Society and a fledgling International Shakespeare Center. Albuquerque’s Vortex Theatre hosts an annual summer Shakespeare festival on Civic Plaza.
The author’s universal appeal lies in his poetry and multifaceted explorations of relationships, Greenberg said.
“When you have poetry on the printed page and on stage, it reaches out to a broader audience and it excites the heart and the mind. It speaks to something in our common humanity. The only book that’s been printed more often than Shakespeare is the Bible itself.”